It's a frequent canard raised by the HSR deniers - that nobody would choose even a bullet train over a plane to get between the two halves of our state. Soaring passenger rail ridership belies this argument, as travelers see the benefits - in terms of comfort and economy - of rail travel. The Washington Post explored this dynamic in today's paper, interviewing Acela riders to explain the shift:
Jada Golden stood in the waiting lounge at Union Station, explaining why Amtrak is a better way to travel than an airline.
"It's as heavy as we want," Golden said, pointing to an oversize suitcase. "We can put it on a rack in the rail car and get things out of it."
Golden, 36 and a Boston schoolteacher, pointed to another bag -- a large paper grocery bag filled with sandwiches, salads, water and fruit. "You can bring food," she said.
She continued. On the train, she's free to pick her own seat and doesn't have a flight attendant telling her when to use electronics. And then there's the airline stress factor -- the security headaches and the delays.
"You're always delayed in the airport," Golden said. "You always have connecting flights."
Security theater, high fuel prices, an aging infrastructure, and corporate nickel and diming are all driving passengers away from planes and to the trains. On the Acela passengers are free to talk on their cell phones, getting work done that they couldn't get done on a plane. It's a superior method of travel, as more and more Americans are discovering.
Of course it helps that the Northeast Corridor has something like the Acela, a quasi-high speed train that is competitive with flying times between DC and NYC. Here in California we just don't have that option. The Coast Starlight, which I'm riding to LA tomorrow, takes about 12 hours to get from the Bay Area to SoCal. There's just no way that can ever shift travel habits in any lasting or meaningful way. I love riding it, but most Californians can't afford to take two whole days to get between LA and SF. Compared against the Coast Starlight, yeah, flying is generally the better option.
And that's where high speed rail makes such an enormous difference. Two and a half hours on a train is certainly competitive with flying, especially when the security theater, travel time to and from the airport, waiting in the terminal, and frequent flight delays are considered. You can conduct business on the train, with a cell phone and likely by wi-fi once our project is built. It provides a stable cost of transportation, as opposed to flights which are dependent on an ever-rising cost of oil.
Already airlines are cutting flights between LA and SF, which is likely to continue as fuel costs eat into profit margins. To believe we can rely on airlines to handle our intrastate travel needs is to deny reality. Americans are already demonstrating that they WILL take high speed rail if it's an option, just as Californians are riding the Amtrak California lines in massive numbers. Put together it's a solid argument for high speed rail in California.