Even a cursory glance at the news of the last two years reveals an inordinate degree of blithering and dithering over high-speed rail in the US—and especially in California. Some states have even, in a fit of anti-Federalist pique, returned high-speed rail grants—while other states have snapped them up forthwith. But even within states that are committed to HSR, controversy still rages. Controversy over financing, over feasibility, even over philosophy...especially among those pathologically attached to subsidized private driving, it seems.
Bullet trains in Japan
Highways and airlines. Yet airlines are horribly inefficient too—their only virtue is speed. Shinjuku, a rail and subway hub in central Tokyo, covers about a square block and sees four million boardings a day—with no traffic jams around it, since almost no one drives to it. Meanwhile, Los Angeles International Airport, the world's sixth busiest, averaged less than 170,000 boardings per day for 2011—and is famous for congestion on the freeways feeding it. And airplanes are carbon-heavy—only SUVs are worse for single-passenger travel.
So you'd think that the decision to build a fast, clean, space-efficient transport network superior to both air travel and driving, nearly as fast as the former, and easy on the public purse, would be a no-brainer. But apparently not. There is controversy.
Let's address a few of the objections we hear in California, the project and state with which we are most familiar.
One thing to recall is that the the first segment of the proposed line is planned for the great Central Valley, connecting Bakersfield to the Bay Area. This was a financial decision, to build the main trunk of the line before the connection to Los Angeles and points south, because, simply, it's easier in the flat and lightly-populated agricultural reaches of the San Joaquin Valley. This is a fairly recent proposal, and it immediately raised the predictable plaint that "No one will use it, since it doesn't serve LA!" And it's true that perhaps few people from LA would use it. But I'm sure that the people of the Central valley would be surprised to hear that they are "nobody." Because Amtrak, in partnership with CalTrans, operates six normal-speed trains a day along that same route, and the one we took recently was pretty well packed.
There's also the usual bluster about money, but we hardly need to go into that. The latest estimates for the project vary from around $70 billion to nearly $100 billion—for a system spanning the state and serving multiple cities. By contrast, CalTrains just spent $1 billion to add a single carpool lane to ten miles of the San Diego Freeway in Los Angeles. And unlike the train, the lane will not charge a "fare" for its use. It is, essentially free. Even if you count our country's paltry gas taxes. And you've got to wonder how much the totality of all the airports serving serving Bakersfield, Fresno, Stockton, Oakland, San Francisco, and the other cities on the first leg of the HSR route cost to build, how much land they take up, and what profit they turn as airports....
Then there's this question of endless "studies." Well, you do need some basic engineering studies, of course. And let's be fair: the California High Speed Rail Authority did consult with Japan Rail, the experts in the field. But this is California: our geography is similar to Japan's: long narrow plains with rugged mountains; our population, though less, is similarly distributed in one megacity and numerous smaller ones; we have earthquakes, but so does Japan, and bigger ones. And Japan has snow, which California's trains won't have to deal with. Besides, high-speed rail is a mature technology that has been under constant refinement for half a century. It can be done with off-the-shelf equipment and present-day building techniques. It's close to rocket science, but it's everyday rocket science.
We've been in Japan. We've ridden bullet trains, watched the rice fields blur past the windows, smiled at the tea cart lady pouring brimming cups as the train moved, nearly without sensation, at 200mph between Tokyo and Osaka. We watched the passengers sleep as we rocketed northward. We saw train after train pull into the station, open its doors nearly as briefly as a subway, and roll out again, silent and swift.
We were amazed and amused, but the locals were settling in with books and pillows. It was nothing remarkable to them. Just the way of the world—which is leaving America behind at high speed indeed when it comes to intercity travel.
Learn more about California's project at the High-Speed Rail Authority's website.
Text and photo by Richard Risemberg