Michael Cabanatuan's article on Prop 1A in today's San Francisco Chronicle is one of the best articles I've seen from the media on high speed rail - partly because he doesn't just play the "he said, she said" game where someone from the oil company funded Reason Foundation spouts off a bunch of numbers and then someone from the authority responds. Cabanatuan, almost alone among California journalists, actually interviewed longtime HSR experts - people who have spent their careers in the field and who know what they're talking about:
California's system would be the first in the United States. But high-speed rail has been running in Europe and Asia for three to four decades.
"It's a proven business model in many parts of the world. Most of the high-speed rail in Europe is 25 years old," said Roelof Van Ark, senior vice president for North America for Alstom, a French firm that develops and builds high-speed rail trains and systems.
Japanese companies and Alstom are both interested in possibly investing in the California system, [Noriyuki] Shikata [of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs] and Van Ark said. And both are convinced that high-speed rail can fly in California - if voters approve it at the polls.
"The world is booming in high-speed rail," Van Ark said, citing new lines around the world and expanding networks in Europe and Asia. "The model has proven to be successful. It's only a matter of time before it comes to North America. But you've got to start somewhere."
Alstom understands how high speed rail works, and would not be interested in a California high speed rail project if they did not believe it to be financially and practically viable. They also know that California has optimal conditions for high speed rail to be as successful here as in Japan and Europe:
Van Ark and Shikata agree, saying a line connecting the heavily populated Bay Area and Southern California, and running through the flat, more sparsely developed San Joaquin Valley, is ideal.
"That stretch between San Francisco and Los Angeles is such an optimum stretch," said Van Ark. "You want a long stretch where you can actually use the maximum speed of the train."
Cabanatuan's article also points out the importance of having high density around the HSR stations. The Reason Foundation is again quoted as saying California doesn't have the population density period to support HSR but we have disproved that argument before, showing that California and Spain are very similar on that point. Van Ark pointed out that HSR actually spurs urban density as the land around a station becomes more valuable.
The Central Valley will be key to this, as cities along the line will have to shift their land use policies to favor infill density development. It's always been my argument that this is going to happen anyway given the factors that make sprawl less economically viable or practical. SB 375, recently signed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, provides a powerful weapon to make that happen, tying land use law to global warming reduction targets and favoring urban density.
In any event, it's refreshing to see a California journalist write an HSR article that actually informs the reader and provides a thoughtful discussion of the issue, rather than acting as a proxy for the Reason Foundation's anti-transit diatribes. Kudos to Michael Cabanatuan for this article.