Cal Rail Blues

As part of my continuing intermittent series of posts publicly worrying about California lighting its money on fire with a high speed rail construction project, I offer another post publicly worrying about California lighting its money on fire with a high speed rail construction project. And again I want to impress the viewer with the nuance that I want to have high speed rail here — I’m just convinced that the state is botching the job.

Today, I note that the California High Speed Rail Authority has had a change in leadership. Its new chief executive is the former head of the California Department of Transportation, ubiquitously known in the state as “Caltrans.” Now, I actually have a pretty high opinion of Caltrans, since I’ve taken the time to consider the massive, massive job that it has been charged with. They aren’t perfect and construction on the roads is a massive headache when you encounter it, but all things considered they’re as on top of the job as seems reasonably possible.

So the change in day-to-day leadership is a good thing. But the appointed directors overseeing the project seem content to continue the previous iteration of the plans to phase in the high speed rail project in the San Joaquin Valley rather than in either the San Francisco peninsula or the Los Angeles basin. The reason?

Not only can the train run full-speed in the valley – which it plainly cannot do in Anaheim or Atherton on the San Francisco Peninsula – but it has a right-of-way problem that makes building in the valley urgent. In the Bay Area and Southern California, the authority plans to share long-established rights of way with Caltrain and Metrolink. But in the valley, the fastest-growing part of the state, Richard said, the authority is finding new apartment buildings popping up on its intended alignment before it can make an offer for the land.

In other words, the route through the San Joaquin Valley has been mapped out, and is known. But the land hasn’t been bought yet and local governments, apparently believing that there simply never will be high-speed rail there, are authorizing the development of that land. I also find the mention of apartment buildings as opposed to simply “development” sort of weird and I wonder if this is not in reference to a single development project somewhere that Cal Rail finds particularly troublesome.

Note: I no longer expect newspaper reporters to actually investigate the content of things their sources tell them like this. I mean, why should a reporter bother to see if something like this is true or understand the significance of remarks in a press release? Why should a journalist discern the reality behind sanitized public remarks? What is this, the Seventies? And I’ve not sufficient time this morning before going to my real job to investigate this myself, so I’m just going to leave that thought where it is. Now to be fair, the Orange County Register’s reporter does have a history of investigating government corruption with some skill — but does not seem in this article to have looked in to the question of even-at-face-value problems described by the Cal Rail folks at their recent dog and pony show.

After all, the real focus of my critique is on the high-level design and implementation decisions made by Cal Rail. The Bakersfield-Fresno segment cannot generate sufficient ridership on its own for that portion of the line to possibly be economically viable. Yes, these are bigger cities than most people think, but all the same I remain unconvinced that there is or ever will be enough traffic between them for this lone segment to generate even an operating profit, much less pay back all the bond money used to create the line. There will not be until and unless the lines reach at least one anchor city: one of a) Los Angeles, b) Anaheim, c) San Jose, d) San Francisco, or e) Sacramento.

Contrary to the vision of possibility articulated in Cal Rail’s press release and parroted by the reporters, high speeds can be achieved in urban areas. If the track to be used is dedicated and the right of way physically removed from surface traffic. This can be accomplished in any number of ways. The track can be elevated. Why ever not? Light rail tracks are elevated now. I just saw the Metrolink in Los Angeles’ Chinatown and damn if the whole thing wasn’t up on big concrete stilts. We get earthquakes in California, but somehow these things are engineered to be safe enough to survive them. (This is not an ironic or sarcastic remark — I have no doubt that they are earthquake safe up to 8.0 or better.)

More importantly, somehow the money was found to elevate these tracks. With the rich supply of money made available by the voters four years ago, the rich supply of Federal matching funds made available from Washington, and the prospect of endless money to come from a spineless Sacramento, there is no reason I can think of that dedicated high speed rail tracks through the urban centers necessary for the economic viability of Cal Rail could not be elevated. Alternatively, tunneling is an option albeit an apparently more expensive one — but trenching might not be quite so costly as tunneling. Trenching worked reasonably well for the Alameda Corridor Project, linking the Los Angeles/Long Beach harbors to the cargo rail yards in east Los Angeles.

Here’s the basic problem with travel by train in California: it’s so slow and so expensive it can’t compete with cars, much less airplanes. A real example will illustrate this. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, my parents rented a house on the beach in Encinitas. Mrs. Likko and I drove down to spend the holiday weekend with them. It took us over four hours of drive time, some of it in frustrating traffic stops, and two-thirds of a tank of gas each way. Total cost: let’s call it about $100 in gas and wear and tear on the car. Total commute time: eight hours. That’s what rail transit was competing with. Now, rail service was available. Going by rail would have been somewhat less stressful than the drive, but at $100 per person per leg of the trip (involving switching trains twice, once in Los Angeles and again in Anaheim), the total dollar cost would have been four times what the drive was, and the trip would have taken six hours each way: we’d have spent half again as much time in transit, in exchange for the privilege of spending more money to get there slower.

Meanwhile, the traffic that does exist for commercial activity between the central valley cities or social and commuting purposes consists to a very large extent of traffic from one suburban point to another suburban point. Having just been in downtown Fresno recently, and traveling to Bakersfield often enough as I do, I can attest that the areas in the immediate downtown zones have some nice tall buildings and governmental complexes, sure. But most of the economic activity is going on in areas that are not within walkable distances from the downtown areas were Cal Rail stations are like to be placed.

Here’s a reality check. If my office is in Bakersfield, I have maybe a one in four chance that I’m within walking distance of the downtown rail lines near the civic center. If I’m going to an office in Fresno, I have maybe a one in four chance that it’s going to be within walking distance of Fresno’s civic center. More likely I’m officed somewhere on Bakersfield’s east side on or near California Avenue, and more likely I’m going to another office in somewhere like Clovis. So that means cabs or rental cars or some other kind of local commuting. Problems I can solve with non-trivial but low effort, true. But still logistical problems that I must solve, and an addition to my actual commuting time. If, in theory, the segment of my trip from Bakersfield to Fresno takes one hour (as opposed to two hours in my car) then I’m going to add at least half an hour getting from my location in Bakersfield to the rail line, and half an hour getting from the end of the line in Fresno to my location there. Now I’m back up to two hours of real commuting time, and have spent more money than I would have spent otherwise.

Now, Cal Rail says “Once operating, projections estimate 4,500 boardings daily in Fresno and 5,100 in Bakersfield, with travel time between Fresno and Bakersfield estimated at 37 minutes.” That’s great. But that’s once the whole line is up and operating, from Anaheim to San Francisco, and high speed transit is implemented at all points where it is hoped for. It’s 114 miles of track — 37 minutes from point A to point B is an average speed of 220 miles per hour. That isn’t going to be possible even taking Cal Rail’s optimistic public statements until the next decade (Register’s emphasis eliminated, my emphases added):

The authority hopes to begin construction on the Bakersfield-to-Fresno segment in summer 2013. By the end of the decade it plans to connect that segment to Palmdale and to start high-speed service.

Asked about the existing Metrolink service from Sylmar to Palmdale, which a questioner said was very slow, Richard appeared elated at the characterization. He suggested slow Metrolink service would encourage the public to demand completion of high-speed rail from Palmdale into the Los Angeles Basin.

“We will hit a tipping point for high-speed rail when people see they can do part of their trip at very high speed,” Richard said. “So I’ll be happy that it’s slow, for a while.

So for several years, it won’t be 37 minutes from Bakersfield to Fresno, it’ll be longer. And that is the level of service Cal Rail intends to use to introduce itself to the public. It’s not even close to competitive with auto travel. Rail travel wasn’t even an option for my Thanksgiving commute. Even if Cal Rail were somehow conjured by magic into full operating existence today, it would still not solve the commuting problem for the Bakersfield commuter looking to do business in Fresno. In both cases, choosing a private car to the train is a no-brainer from a time perspective alone. Add to that the cost. Some people don’t have cars to have that be an option? I understand that, but if they can’t afford a car, chances are they can’t afford a train ticket, either.

The right-of-way issue in the San Joaquin Valley ought to be solved by tracking the route of either Interstate Highway 5 or the California Aqueduct along the western side of the Valley, and running spur lines into the medium-sized cities on the Valley’s eastern side. Those spur lines need not run at the ultra-high speeds, and running spur lines can reduce the number of interim stops, shortening travel time. One stop could send a spur to both Bakersfield and Fresno, another stop could service Merced and Stockton. Two stops instead of four means faster commuting times on the all-important line between Los Angeles and San Francisco: tapping into the downtown-to-downtown markets is the key to economic viability.

Now, Cal Rail insists on the eastern rather than the western route. And maybe it’s too late to change that now. So, why isn’t Cal Rail buying these rights of way right now? Why haven’t they been given the power to condemn these rights of way right now? How can it be the case that local governments have the power to zone and approve development on route that they know or ought to know are along the proposed Cal Rail route? Wait — Cal Rail has this power, but apparently has declined to use it. Why is this? It isn’t for lack of available money to pay for these rights — billions and billions of dollars have been raised in bond sales and put into Cal Rail’s coffers. Why isn’t that money being used to reserve and clear out the route right now? How can it be that one land developer (or perhaps a handful of them) building a few apartment houses is holding a ten-digit public works project for ransom?

The fundamental conceptual problems of Cal Rail have not been and will apparently never be addressed. Cal Rail seems doomed to be prohibitively expensive to build, not economically viable to operate, and not competitive with cars on either a cost or time basis for its users. California’s taxpayers are being done a great disservice. Again.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. I’m confused about your travel time argument. The argument about slow service is about the Palmdale segment of Metrorail, which the guy wants to be slow so that people will demand high speed rail from your house down to L.A. I don’t see any connection between that and the travel time between Baketown and Fresno (Gateway to Clovis!). What stands in the way of a high speed trip (on an undoubtedly nearly empty train) between those two lovely destinations?

    I would also note that in your trip to Encinatas, you would actually have gained 8 hours (4 each way) of usable time, since you can do so much more on the train than in a car. But of course that doesn’t necessarily outweigh the extra cost and increased total travel time. I just have a persistent beef with folks saying a longer train trip = that much time lost. I used to take Metrolink to downtown L.A. on the weekends. It took 20 minutes longer, but I actually gained useful time.

    • Oh, but in case it wasn’t clear, in general I’m in agreement with your criticisms.

    • The point of productivity of time on a train as compared with the single-focus (we hope!) attention of driving is well-taken. If I — a lawyer — were commuting by train from Bakersfield to Fresno, I could fill that time with billable work; at my usual billing rates I could more than recover the cost of the ticket. (If I had the billable work to do in the first place, but that’s my problem and not Cal Rail’s.)

      Not everyone has as high a billable rate for their time as a lawyer or the ability to so directly translate that time into money. Consider a doctor. She typically can’t treat patients on the train, so her primary means of making money is as lost on a train as it is in a car. Maybe she could write reports or review records; that indirectly recoups the value of her travel time.

      On my Thanksgiving trip, the chances that I’d have used the six hours of transit time to be productive would have been about zero. I’d have spent the time talking with my wife (I talked with her while driving, of course, although I had to pay attention to the road too) or read a book or a magazine or listened to music or a lecture (again some of which I can do, and actually do, while driving). Or, if there was wi-fi, I might have amused myself here on the blog. And let’s face it, even professionals with productivity opportunities are going to be sub-optimally productive while in transit: I’ve tried writing and reading briefs on airplanes, and as often as not wound up playing Minesweeper instead.

      So yes, I acknowledge that there’s higher utility, or at least potential utility, to train time as opposed to drive time. And less stress for the commuter. That is worth something. I don’t think it’s worth as much as Cal Rail will be demanding for the ticket, at least for most folks.

      As to the point about the slow travel on the Metrolink from Palmdale to Los Angeles as opposed to the high-speed transit which eventually will be available from Palmdale to Bakersfield to Fresno on Cal Rail, bear in mind that Cal Rail will open at standard speeds on the Bakersfield-Fresno segment, they hope, in 2015 or so, and open at standard speeds on the Palmdale-Bakersfield segment, they hope, in 2018. Up through about 2020, the speed that Metrolink gets you from Los Angeles to Palmdale will be the same speed that Cal Rail can do it. It won’t be until some time in the early Twenties that Cal Rail will operate at high speed from Palmdale through Fresno. By then, people will have learned that Cal Rail is slow and expensive. And it will have eaten up X years’ worth of operating subsidy to build ridership.

      • Also less danger. Particularly if you’re multitasking while driving.

      • Burt,

        To be clear, I used the word “useful” time carefully. I consider reading a book to be useful time, although not billable. I’ve been thinking about driverless cars a lot lately, because of the amount of useful time I would gain (including an extra hour of sleep while driving to Detroit for swim meets on cold winter mornings). Those are things people are willing to pay for–to some degree, and with differing individual valuations. There’s also just the reduced stress of riding instead of driving, and the ability to go to the lounge car for a cup of joe or a beer.

        But I’m not saying that in every case or for everybody those calculations will bear out the same. Our opportunity costs for time and money differ. I probably would have made the same decision as you on the Encinatas trip (or it might depend on what other expenses I’ve recently had; e.g., how deeply the extra monetary cost bit; the timing of the train schedule matters a lot, too, of course).

        ear in mind that Cal Rail will open at standard speeds on the Bakersfield-Fresno segment, they hope, in 2015 or so, and open at standard speeds on the Palmdale-Bakersfield segment, they hope, in 2018.

        Got it. Thanks for the clarification. But WTF are they thinking that?

        • How long until we get modular trains from driverless cars? One engine is much more efficient… and if you can battery power the “pieces” to the freeway…

  2. The thing that never made any goddamn sense to me about this is political, not practical.

    So you want to engage in a very large infrastructure project. Okay, that’s all well and good. We know ahead of time that very large infrastructure projects are going to cost a lot of up-front money, and the payoffs aren’t going to start trickling in until at best a decade away, probably more.

    So, given that these things are always politically difficult, why do you choose to schedule the payoff that has the *least* political gain *possible* for the first decade? Because you want to struggle for ten years to keep this project *alive*?

    • I think I follow but I’m not 100%. By “political gain” do you mean “number of actual users of the project made happy by its existence”?

      • More along the lines of, “People who will ignore the naysayers when they try to kill it, because they see it getting used by somebody”.

        San Francisco or Los Angeles, or *maybe* San Diego were the only places to start this thing. The only two other possible destinations other than those three are Vegas and Sacramento. But you have to have at least one of the first three involved in the first leg.

        Otherwise, you’re just creating yet another political albatross to hang around your neck for the next decade. Even if the train works, in the long run, you’re going to get beat all to hell for ten years doing it this way.

        • Even if the train works, in the long run, you’re going to get beat all to hell for ten years doing it this way. Heh. By people like me.

          • You’re a reasonable enough guy, Burt, and you’re a conservative-leaning guy who’s willing to chip in for big projects just like this. If you’re convinced that this isn’t going to work, it’s a sure sign that they screwed it up.

            I get all of the practical reasons to start a project like this in the boonies. But there’s two quick responses to that: it doesn’t matter unless you can get the whole thing done and really, you file the easements in the Valley now and don’t worry about it.

            Start with SFSacramento. Or, at the very least, the northeasternmost drop of the BART (the Pittsburg/Bay Point end of the Yellow Line) and Sacramento.

        • But on the other hand, voters in the Central Valley are more ideologically predisposed to oppose the project in the first place, compared to voters in the major cities. You could characterize the initial rail development as “buying off” the groups most likely to make a fuss that it’s a boondoggle.

          • I’d buy that explanation if it had a reasonable chance of working.

    • I’ve been blaming the idiocy on the fact that it began as a ballot proposition. The lines that would have value are prohibitively expensive, logistically impossible, or both, but as a matter of law they have to build *something*.

  3. As something of a rail-skeptic, I really liked this post. If I’d started Linky Friday earlier, there’d have actually been some posts on California’s plans and a lot of the pushback it’s been getting from people who aren’t nearly as rail-skeptical as I am. I’ll see if I can dig them up when I get time.

  4. I’ve been watching Houston — which is massively sprawled — try to work out a light rail system. (Which it needs).

    I’ve noticed a particular problem that seems to be a common catch-22 in adding transist systems later, rather than building them in from the start. (This is more about transit in a given city as opposed to between them).

    You need two things: The system to get you ‘around’ the interesting areas (in Houston this is stuff like downtown, the Courts, the museum area, the stadiums/sports arenas, University of Houston, the theater district — the places people work or play in large numbers). You ALSO need the system to bring people in from the outside (bypassing the crowded roads leading ‘into’ the city — connecting up the outlying towns, suburbs, etc).

    Houston is in the ugly middle stage, where the ‘inside the loop’ connectivity is still being built. Which is frustrating to many people, because there’s not a lot of need for it until it can bring people INTO town. There’s no point in driving into town then using the rail to go to another place inside of town, and there’s not enough people living inside the Loop to really use the system. But if you build the capacity to bring in the rush hour/event masses into the city without that connectivity, then they can’t get anywhere.

    As for high-speed rail — every year I have a conference in San Antonio. I drive from Houston, the rest of my group flies. I beat them there, year in and year out, and I don’t have to deal with TSA and such. I’d MUCH prefer a fast (median at least 70mph) train and a rental car to a plane and a rental car for any flight less than 250 miles. Maybe longer.

    Planes flat-out suck, especially in the post 9-11 days. The security theater is a joke and a massive hassle.

    • Pittsburgh’s rail manages to be both stupid sand smart at the same time. One line, takes you into the city. Other line, takes you to “fun stuff”. You can guess which one is actually a good idea.

      It helps to have a teeny downtown.

      I’m pulling for gondolas next.

    • So it’s, what, about 200 miles from Houston to San Antonio? An hour each way, if there were a high-speed rail in place. I can see the attraction there. How much would you be willing to pay for that? If it was there, would you really use it, and if so only for this conference or other times? I bet you would. I bet if it existed, there’d be more commerce between the cities than there already is and both cities would be better off for it.

      As for light rail, bear in mind that light rail is used at standard speeds and operates on or near surface traffic, while high-speed rail is used to connect distant locations and needs dedicated track with few stops. So while both are trains, they really aren’t the same kind of animal.

      • I’ve got friends of mine that use the park-and-ride to get downtown, which the city is trying to (mostly) replace with rail over the next decade or so. They’re quite happy with it, but would prefer rail.

        As for Houston to SA — strangely, the Texas Leg has occasionally considered linking Dallas, Austin, SA, and Houston together with high-speed rail. Won’t happen, though, despite the fact that the hour long flight from Houston to Dallas is now something like 3 once you factor in ‘arriving early’ and ‘security’. (250 miles).

        I think the country’s heavy rail needs an overhaul too — not for speed, but for layout and changing economics. I understand there’s some serious hassle in Chicago for cargo rail that dates back to decisions made by the Robber Barons…

        • The NY Times had a good short piece earlier this year about the rail congestion in Chicago. It can take up to 30 hours to get a freight car across the city. A variety of upgrades appear to be under way, from simple things like rail switches that can be operated remotely to major construction to fix same-grade crossings.

  5. My basic take on urban rail (and to a lesser extent rail more generally) is that it’s fantastic when baked into the outlay of the city, but once you have a roadcentric outlay, rail doesn’t just have to be better than bus and car, but it has to be better enough to compensate for the dissonance between as the city is and as rail needs the city to be. It’s not that it can’t be done, but I do start off from a skeptical position.

    On intercity rail, you run into the same problems, but I think there can be more tools at your disposal. Though I don’t think it’ll take the TSA long to establish itself as rail becomes more of a thing.

    • That’s pretty much my take.

      It’s been a pain — Houston is probably one of the least friendly US cities for rail (the sprawl is horrendous) but better mass transit is becoming necessary. It’s just getting to hard to get anywhere during peak hours if you want to hit inside the loop. Houston has finally gotten to the point where, well, we’ve run out of things to pave.

      Self-driving electric cars might be better than rail (heck, they’re my ideal solution) but those are two decades away, minimum. (View it as a cross between zipcar and personal taxis, with a 200 mile range between charges. Rent for a single trip, rent by the hour, rent for a day — just tell them where to go and when to be there).

      I suspect once self-driving cars become ubiquitious (it’ll be when insurance companies start upping your deductable if they found out YOU were driving, not the computer) a lot of congestion problems will, not go away exactly, but transform.

      If you’re letting computers handle routing and driving, well — a lot of the current road design goes away and becomes more…optimized. Stoplights? Don’t need them. Six lane highways, with three in each direction? Don’t need it — allocate lanes according to directional demand.

      99% of the tech is in top-of-the-line cars now. Radar in the bumpers, camaras all around (my mother-in-law’s got 360 degree camaras around her car, and the car stops automatically if something gets too close to the bumpers. It can also parallel park itself)…you just need the software, and enough human buyin.

      Betcha it’ll make some pretty pictures. More like flocking birds than endless lines of stalled cars….

      Hmm. I bet I can simulate that — layout a fake city and see how much efficiency I can squeeze out of it.

        • Sim city won’t let you do the fun stuff on that — self-driving cars optimized by algorithm opens up possibilities that defy human driving patterns (we can’t see the ‘big picture’ from behind the wheel, we’re mistake prone, and we can’t make mass decisions instantly. Heck, just watch two lanes try to merge….ugh).

          SimCity is excellent for showing the limitations of single-passenger vehicles, though — although I don’t know if any of the versions actually even tries to deal with parking! (A huge issue on it’s own).

          But self-driving cars, even without centralized traffic control, can execute all sorts of neat behaviors. It’s actually a very exciting concept — just getting rid of the need for traffic lights alone is huge.

          Although people will probably have to get used to cars whose safety margins, driving decisions, and behavior is utterly at odds with how a sane person drives.

          Fundamental to human drivers: Defensive driving. It’s a concept so important that they’ll erase tickets if you take it, drop your insurance rates if you take it. “Assume everyone else on the road is a flaming moron who isn’t paying attention”.

          I suspect it’ll take awhile to sort out the logic (who/what/where makes decisions — I suspect lane allocation will be done centrally, and some routing perhaps) and the optimums that fall out should be weird and interesting.

          Does a self-organizing swarm routing system handle a 4-way intersection by stopping and letting groups go at a time? Or by adjusting speed and interpolating? How adjusting even further back, creating natural gaps by dropping some cars a few mph and speeding others up?

  6. Nice piece.

    I’m a rail advocate, but I admit that I fail to understand the current infatuation with medium-distance passenger service. It seems to be a solution in search of a problem. Just my opinion, but the money would be better spent at this time on urban light rail (for a fraction of the California high-speed line, Denver’s system could be finished and put 250,000 butts in seats every day) or taking freight traffic off of the long-distance interstates in the West on to scheduled freight delivery. Seriously, you go look at I-80 across western Nebraska and Wyoming and it is, quite literally, a really-expensive badly-designed long-haul train system.

    • Depends on the demand, really.

      I think part of it boils down to how bad air travel is. It’s just…not really working out for shorter routes, but six hours in a car doesn’t work either. (It’s not like the airlines are making big profits. Or profits at all. But they’re also kinda necessary).

      If you can replace a lot of regular hour or so ferry flights with two or three hour train rides, that’s probably gonna work out better for everyone, what with security theater taking up at least 90 minutes these days.

      And more comfortably, to boot. Air travel sucks outside of first class.

    • “Just my opinion, but the money would be better spent at this time on urban light rail”

      Finishing out the BART extension so that it goes all the way to San Jose Airport would have more riders in its first year than Cal Rail would get in its first five.

      • Yeah, Denver’s light rail system is going to get a huge boost in ridership in 2016 when they finish another of the western suburban lines, and the line to Denver International Airport. Light-rail ridership on the existing Denver lines has consistently exceeded the forecasts — current ridership exceeds the original forecasts for 2020. I’m looking forward to the 2016 openings — downtown Denver suddenly becomes a 15-minute bicycle ride and 18-minute train ride away, with no parking hassles.

        • Totally OT, but every time I see your username pop up, I get this stuck in my head.

          If this is your real name, you should definitely try to arrange to have this playing whenever you make your entrance someplace.

          It may seem like a lot of effort to do so, but I think that ultimately the “enhancement” to your reputation will be well worth it.

          • As it is my real name, I’ll take it under advisement. Aside from the fact that I’m terrible at accents, I always wondered if I could learn to do this in order to mess with people.

          • It was far too long ago to have been YouTube’d but I once saw the other Michael Caine, at Dick Cavett’s invitation, talk in a combination of Cockney accent and Cockney slang that mawswelabin bleedin’ Swahili.

            (By the way, when you answered the baseball history trivia question, did you see why I said you knew what it was all about?)

          • Michael Caine is the man. He was asked once why he has been in so many bad films (and good lord he has, as well as many good ones; but he himself is almost always at least watchable no matter what) and he said something to the effect that he grew up poor and decided he’d never be poor again if he could help it.

            So he will basically never turn down work; he’s always worried that any job could be his last.

          • It also may not be obvious in all cases which film is going to be a good one and which is going to be a bad one. I mean sure, sometimes an actor must surely know, “Yeah, this is gonna be a stinker,” or “You know, this is gonna turn out pretty good.” But if you do enough films like Mr. Caine, then that instinct will have been proven wrong a reasonable number of times.

          • He also saw this lady is a coffee commercial, thought “That’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen’, tracked her down, and married her. That’s what I call being “the man”.

          • Also true. And looking at his IMDB page, I’d say the hits (or at least middling-to-good) far outweigh notorious dreck.

            But “Hoagie” in Jaws: The Revenge? Come ON, man. That had to be for a paycheck.

          • From his IMDB bio (he was not kidding about “poor”):

            Born Maurice Micklewhite in London, Michael Caine was the son of a fish-market porter and a charlady. He left school at 15 and took a series of working-class jobs before joining the British army and serving in Korea during the Korean War, where he saw combat. Upon his return to England he gravitated toward the theater and got a job as an assistant stage manager. He adopted the name of Caine on the advice of his agent, taking it from a marquee that advertised The Caine Mutiny (1954). In the years that followed he worked in more than 100 television dramas, with repertory companies throughout England and eventually in the stage hit, “The Long and the Short and the Tall.” Zulu (1964), the 1964 epic retelling of a historic 19th-century battle in South Africa between British soldiers and Zulu warriors, brought Caine to international attention. Instead of being typecast as a low-ranking Cockney soldier, he played a snobbish, aristocratic officer. Although “Zulu” was a major success, it was the role of Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File (1965) and the title role in Alfie (1966) that made Caine a star of the first magnitude. He epitomized the new breed of actor in mid-’60s England, the working-class bloke with glasses and a down-home accent. However, after initially starring in some excellent films, particularly in the 1960s, including Gambit (1966), Funeral in Berlin (1966), Play Dirty (1969), Battle of Britain (1969), Too Late the Hero (1970), The Last Valley (1971) and especially Get Carter (1971), he seemed to take on roles in below-average films, simply for the money he could by then command. There were some gems amongst the dross, however. He gave a magnificent performance opposite Sean Connery in The Man Who Would Be King (1975) and turned in a solid one as a German colonel in The Eagle Has Landed (1976). Educating Rita (1983) and Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) (for which he won his first Oscar) were highlights of the 1980s, while more recently Little Voice (1998), The Cider House Rules (1999) (his second Oscar) and Last Orders (2001) have been widely acclaimed.

          • Well, it may not be obvious in all cases. “Jaws: The Revenge” likely did not inspire particularly high hopes.

          • Glyph, you’ve never heard the Michael Caine line about Jaws : The Revenge?

            ” I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.”

          • at Glyph:

            Michael Caine was once asked if he saw a really bad movie he made. His response was “No but I saw the swimming pool it built.”

          • @ND: Boy, when people complained about this place becoming an echo chamber, they weren’t kidding. 😉

            (See 2 comments above yours if that makes no sense.)

            “the son of a fish-market porter and a charlady” – that is some Dickens stuff right there.

  7. My state is starting a massive bridge project soon and it’s going to probably take close to 20 years. These kinds of posts terrify me. It’s going to be a boondoggle of enormous proportions for a state like mine where road projects are already used to line the pockets of officials.

    I don’t know California’s policies, but does this mean their heavy rail needs are already being adequately met?


    Never have I seen medical advice make such a polite and thoughtful request for clarification on US transportation policy.

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