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Why We Should Celebrate High-Speed Rail

Matt Pressberg |
July 13, 2012 | 3:10 a.m. PDT

Staff Columnist

Californians will love traveling on high-speed rail similar to the French TGV. (Cham/Wikimedia Commons)
Californians will love traveling on high-speed rail similar to the French TGV. (Cham/Wikimedia Commons)
Californians, these are very exciting times. Our state government has agreed at last to bring our rail system into the modern era.

California High-Speed Rail is a worthy endeavor that should prove to be an immensely popular alternative to our clogged freeways and painful airports. It is a long overdue embrace of an indispensable transit option in practically every other leading country in the world aside from this one, and it will make moving around California so much easier for residents, tourists and businesses alike.

Asphalt apologists have it wrong when they point to financially pained countries like Italy and Spain’s (excellent) systems as proof that high-speed rail has little relevance as a marker of progress. Maybe instead of “If insolvent Spain has high-speed rail, how great could it be?” we should be considering that “Even insolvent Spain has high-speed rail.”

This is also why I take all popular sentiment at this preliminary stage with much skepticism. USC did a poll where voters were split approximately in thirds on whether they’d drive, fly or take high-speed rail from L.A. to the Bay Area.

I do love the idea of people who have never used a technology opining on whether they will use it in the future (I’m sure people in the 1980s wouldn’t believe they’d watch sports on a cell phone), but according to California High-Speed Rail’s website, the trip will take two hours and 48 minutes to get from Union Station in L.A. to San Francisco’s Transbay Terminal.

Aside from running drugs or moving furniture, I can’t see why a rational person taking a short trip would opt for the six-hour drive on the I-5 and then the joys of driving and parking a car in San Francisco. LAX to SFO or OAK isn’t fantastically efficient or fun either. The only kind of survey I’d trust on high-speed rail would begin with the question “Have you ever been on true high-speed rail?” and proceed to poll just those people who answered affirmatively.

To be clear, this project will cost a ton of money and will obliterate its budget. These massive undertakings almost always do. In this case, however, I think there are some particularly good justifications for such a sizable investment.

For starters, the California High-Speed Rail project has a lot of initial fixed costs in building the track and buying all the rolling stock, but operating expenses and maintenance on electric trains should be relatively low, considering the alternative of flying gasoline-powered airplanes through the sky multiple times a day. Politicians have been talking about reducing our dependency on foreign oil since dinosaurs were decomposing into it; a high-speed rail system that pulls passengers from planes, cars and buses would actually do something about it.

Second, we currently have a combination of historically low interest rates and high unemployment, especially among construction workers hit hard by the housing bust. Steel prices are also depressed, in large part due to the building slowdown in China. It appears as good a time as any to borrow cheap money and use it to hire construction workers to build rail infrastructure.

And finally, we should remember that throughout the history of advanced civilization, it has been the role of government to establish and improve upon transportation infrastructure, and generally the governments who provide the highest quality, democratically available transportation infrastructure use it to achieve huge economic advantages.

Spending money to go faster and make distances smaller is a time-tested recipe for success and progress, and is never regretted in the long run. Nobody is mad that we built the Panama Canal. Therefore, high-speed rail does not have to turn a profit (even though it usually does) to pay dividends, both financial and in terms of quality of life.

It will absorb a lot of the intra-California air traffic, clearing some of the short commuter flights from our airports, which will free up landing slots and reduce overcrowding. This has been happening in Europe for years, as travelers prefer trains for journeys similar in length to the planned mainline runs of California High-Speed Rail. Airlines can then dump some of their less popular regional routes and focus on the jumbo jet medium-to-long haul flights that tend to be more profitable for them and open up new destinations for us.

Fast trains should also be popular with road tourists, from those doing the Grand Tour of California to your typical Bay Area couple who wants to spend a weekend in L.A. International tour groups, who often move around our huge state by bus and really deserve a better impression of America than that, would seem to be a natural constituency.

Add the proposed XpressWest train, with a Palmdale-Victorville link that would connect the Las Vegas Strip to California High-Speed Rail, and rail travel could quickly become the preferred option for many of these iconic “road” trips. It would also pull some of that traffic off the roads so people who are not going out of town can get home a little quicker on a Friday afternoon.

A premium-priced Business Class service seems like a home run. With the new train’s projected travel time plus brief hops on BART and the Red Line, the office towers of Downtown San Francisco and those in Downtown L.A. would be about three hours door-to-door, with nearly all the time spent in a comfortable and relatively quiet setting with Internet, cell phone coverage and a desk.

The Expo, Gold and extended Purple lines put a whole bunch of other commercial centers, such as Century City, Santa Monica and Pasadena also just an easy one-transfer trip away from Union Station. Tech execs in Silicon Valley and government officials in Sacramento would have similarly productive and efficient trips to take care of business down south. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to equip the trains with some office equipment: Let them scan documents and print presentations on the train and charge mini bar prices. They’ll pay, and that will help subsidize cheaper economy and youth/student fares.

Since I believe in high-speed rail and want so much for this project to succeed even beyond my optimistic expectations, I want to call attention to my primary concern. There is something that can neutralize many of the advantages of California High-Speed Rail and make it just another ordeal-filled travel experience that proves unpopular and ends up a giant waste of money. That something is airport-style security.

High-speed rail, as I’ve experienced it in Europe, works because it’s so painless. Have a 1 p.m. train? Just show up at the platform at 12:55, board the train, toss your bag on a rack and sit down. The train doesn’t wait to verify passengers or bags, so it almost always leaves on time, and the conductor comes to you while it’s rolling to check tickets. Forget clear plastic bags and 3.5-ounce limits; you can bring full-size cosmetics and outside beverages and don’t have to worry about getting your stuff picked through if you happen to leave a lighter or worse in your backpack.

I may think airport security is excessive, overly politically correct and mostly theatrical, but I understand the extra precautions taken when traveling with strangers in a confined space in the sky. For those who would instinctively advocate for a similar setup on high-speed rail, my argument is as follows:

Trains are not airplanes when it comes to security concerns. You can’t crash a train into something on purpose, and if passengers were threatened by the environment in the train, they could always pull the emergency brake, smash the windows and escape. This is not possible at 30,000 feet, although certain people I’ve had the distinct privilege of flying with have made me ponder taking my chances out on the wing. Airport-style security is unnecessary and would add costs both direct (security officers) and indirect (less efficient and less frequent trains), putting taxpayer-funded high-speed rail at a competitive disadvantage. Why would we want to do that?

High-speed rail is not the untested venture its critics would like to believe. It has been proven popular and successful in applications very similar to California’s proposal. High-speed rail works. California High-Speed Rail will work too, as long as we let it.


Reach Staff Columnist Matt Pressberg here.


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Steve (not verified) on July 16, 2012 7:30 PM

Matt, superb article! Great job!

You summed up nearly all there is to know about high-speed rail in California in an excellent way.

In case I'm allowed to make two small additions:

1) Profitability

You're right, high-speed rail doesn't necessarily need to make profits. After all, I-5 between L.A. and Tracy also doesn't make a profit. Not a dime. It just costs the taxpayer a lot, in maintenance, year after year. In opposition, once high-speed rail between L.A. and S.F. is built, it's almost certain that it's going to be very profitable, year after year. I would also be okay if it wasn't, but it's very very likely it will.

Why? Because high-speed rail is making profits all over the world.

Eurostar - international high speed trains between London and Paris
21 million Pounds profits in 2011

ICE (InterCityExpress) and IC (InterCity) high speed trains in Germany
157 million Euro profits in 2011

TGV french high speed trains
900 million Euro profits in 2011

Taiwan High Speed Rail Corporation (THSRC)
After-tax profit of NT$5.78 billion in 2011 (equals 192 million US$, conversion rate of July 2012)

Japan's private high-speed rail companies are profitable, f.e. JR Central making 1.69 billion US$ net income in 2011.

Finally, even in the USA, Acela Express, between Boston and Washington D.C.
100 million gross profit in fiscal year 2010.

With more than 4 million inhabitants in the Greater S.F. area, and more than 18 million in the Greater L.A. area, there is a huge ridership potential. Lots of other high-speed rail lines connect metro areas with way less inhabitants, and still manage to make a profit. That's why it's so likely California high-speed rail will as well.

2) Security checks

It's good to point out, that to hop on and hop off is one of the wonderful advantages of high-speed rail, and that it would be great if high-speed rail operated without security checks on train stations in California as well.

That's another reason for many people to choose the train: Just show up 5 minutes before departure. No arrival 1 hour ahead necessary, how it's common at airports.

Of course it would be great, if it was like high-speed rail in Italy, Germany or France (except for Eurostar), without security checks.

It's very noble for the need to go without security checks, to be a big concern.

Still even if California high-speed rail was constructed with security checks at train stations, the experience is still so much different than at airports.

One can experience this boarding Acela Express in Washington D.C. There's a security check right before you go to the platform, but it's not crowded at all. There are no long lines (unlike at airports), and it's quick.

So maybe you have to arrive 10 or 15 minutes before departure, instead of 5.

But if total travel time for L.A. to S.F. is 3 hours or 3 hours and 10 minutes (including security) won't matter as much, as to keep passengers from riding.

The primary concern of a quite a lot of Californians is, that high-speed rail actually gets built in the first place.

Now there's funding for the first segment of construction. That's a huge accomplishment.

Still more segments are needed. Just 130 miles in the Central Valley are a great start, but they won't get us from L.A. to S.F.

So everybody is invited, to communicate to others about this topic, building momentum.

And whoever feels like it, can engage politically, to elect leaders, start citizen's initiatives or speak publicly, so one decade from now (or in the latest two decades from now), we and our children can actually enjoy all the benefits of this new fast, reliable and clean way of transportation.

baliff collecting council tax (not verified) on August 2, 2012 8:56 AM

Hello there! This post could not be written any better!
Reading this post reminds me of my old room mate!
He always kept talking about this. I will forward this article to him.
Pretty sure he will have a good read. Many thanks for sharing!

CLA (not verified) on July 14, 2012 4:42 PM

Spot on!