The United States Government Accounting Office backed up California’s High-Speed Rail Authority by leaking a report last week that claimed the ridership projections for the new bullet train were “reasonable” – that’s the new ridership projections, which have dropped considerably from earlier reports.

Still, those new projections, at somewhere between 16.1 and 26.8 million passengers a year, strain credibility.

The gap in the potential ridership itself indicates no one is sure how many riders will take the bullet train. An additional 10.7 million riders is a 66% increase over the lower estimate of 16.1 million. Not exactly close to the bulls-eye in the prediction game.

Taking the high number of 26.8 million passengers means that the California bullet train will have more riders than the entire population of any state in the union except for California itself. Texas has the second highest population with 25.1 million people recorded in the 2010 census.

Rail supporters dismiss this kind of comparison, claiming in countries with high speed-rail there are more riders than the population of those countries. For instance, they assert that in 2008 France had 128 million passenger trips and a national population of 62.5 million.

It is important to note, however, that California’s high-speed rail passed the legislature after deals were cut to include money for traditional commuter lines on the route, cutting down the predicted speed of the rail thus reducing motivation for travelers to use the train.

Some even question if the project can truly be called a “high-speed” train with the local commuters involved.

In fact, strong supporters of the bullet train are now challenging whether the project is living up to promises made when the bonds appeared on the ballot. Former state senator Quentin Kopp, a long time advocate and one time chairman of the agency overseeing the system’s construction, recently declared, “They have just mangled this project. They distorted it. We don’t get a high-speed rail system. It is the great train robbery.”

The projected number of riders has fluctuated greatly from what voters were told when they considered the high-speed rail bonds on the November 2008 ballot.

Last April, the Legislative Analyst’s Office noted that the High Speed Rail Authority dropped its ridership 30 percent from only six months earlier when it predicted by 2040 a ridership of 29.6 to 43.9 million one way trips.

Well before the LAO report, scoffed at rail projections this way:

Model says:  The cities of Merced, Fresno and Bakersfield will have more average Daily Inter-Regional boardings than LA.   Gilroy ties LA.
Truth or Logic says:  To quote Senator Lowenthal, “that doesn’t pass the sniff test.”  According to Wikipedia, LA has a population of 9,848,011 and Gilroy has a population of 157,985. Need I say more?

Safe to say there is no certainty in the ridership numbers nor has there been for some time. The GAO’s validation of the new numbers doesn’t change that fact.

The question of ridership leads to the question about financing the project, an issue on which the GAO raised warning flags. The number of paying riders plays into the financing projections and the possibility of additional government subsidies for the train, which are now nowhere in sight.