John Addison publishes the Clean Fleet Report, a newsletter devoted to renewable automobiles. For Earth Day 2008 he wrote an excellent overview of the California high speed rail project that not only reinforces many of the major points in favor of high speed rail, but does so in a particularly clear and convincing manner.
The article opens with an anecdote about Fiona Ma's trip on board the record-breaking TGV trip in 2007, about how her initial worries were quickly overcome:
Fiona Ma was nervous about getting on a train that was about to set a world speed record. Just before Easter 2007 in the countryside outside Paris, she saw the people lining the green and flowered route. The French were flying flags, waving, and cheering. Less reassuring were those of faith who crossed themselves as the new train accelerated past 200 miles per hour. The people blurred into a collage of spring time colors. The train vibrated much as when a jet plane roars down the runway and starts to ascend. Fiona hoped that this train would not leave the tracks.
At three hundred miles per hour, the train was still on the tracks, accelerating. Out the window, only one image was distinct. A plane that was filming the historic event flew along side the train. Surrealistically, Fiona and the eleven other dignitaries could see what was filmed from the plane on a screen inside the train. Another LCD displayed their world record - 357 miles per hour on a train. Everyone cheered. The train slowed over the next few miles. Fiona took a deep breath, exhaled, and smiled; she took part in history.
It's a great framing device for Addison's article, especially as it mirrors some of the initial hesitancy that some Californians have about the project. By now we should be familiar with most of them - it's going to cost too much, Californians won't ride it, the budget deficit means we can't do it, construction will hurt the environment. These are the usual doubts and worries folks have before embarking on a major, transformative project. But once we look at how HSR works in practice - and once we evaluate the specific proposal - it is impossible to avoid having the same feelings of excitement and confidence that Fiona Ma felt on that train in France last year.
Addison goes on to describe the environmental benefits of HSR and the growing demand from Californians for this kind of system. He closes his article with a personal anecdote showing just how useful, efficient, and valuable HSR systems already in place - even quasi-HSR systems like the Acela - are in contrast to our decaying and sclerotic oil-based transportation systems:
As a manager covering several states, I used to travel weekly on airplanes. Point-to-point always required at least four hours to get to the airport, get thru security, taxi in the runway, fly, taxi in the runway, then rent a car. In contrast, when taking a train from Washington D.C. to New York, I found that train travel was faster than airlines and better integrated with public transportation. With high-speed rail, airline travel to cover a few hundred miles would never be a personal option.
Travel between Washington D.C. and Boston is now even faster with speeds of up to 150 miles per hour on Amtrak’s Acela, the only high-speed rail in the United States. Now you can get from the nation’s capital to downtown Manhattan in less than three hours; an impossibility with airline travel and the fastest taxi driver in New York history. Over ten million passengers road this Northeast Corridor in 2007, making it the most popular train route in the U.S. Acela is now profitable.
In 12 years, 32 to 68 million passengers may be riding on an even faster system in California. The high-speed rail will keep California’s economy moving forward, with more jobs, more energy security and far less emissions.
The US Capitol to downtown Manhattan in three hours. Downtown San Francisco to downtown LA in 2.5 hours. These are travel times that airlines simply cannot match - once you factor in total travel time including the trip to and from the airport.
Millions of Californians have stories such as this - whether it's of their travels on the Acela, the Shinkansen, the AVE, or like Fiona Ma, the TGV. While it certainly seems like the major political issues surrounding HSR will be financing and environmental impact, perhaps the most compelling and convincing arguments in its favor are those that come from personal experience. From Californians who know first-hand just how effective and valuable high speed rail really is.
What these personal accounts make clear is that high speed rail is simply a better way to travel. It offers advantages that the airlines cannot, and has a brighter, more affordable future that the airlines cannot hope to offer. HSR isn't a dragon-slayer - it's not going to put the airline industry out of business overnight - and nor is that its goal. Instead it will offer modern transportation that meets our 21st century needs - from cost to economic growth to global warming.
It just makes sense.