I've occasionally mentioned that the origin of my support for high speed rail was a trip on Spain's AVE line from Madrid to Sevilla in 2001, in the context of a broader argument that a surefire way to generate support for rail travel is to put people on a train and show them how useful it is, and how good it could be at a high speed.
Today Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger made much the same argument, but in a rather odd way:
Speaking at a forum on global economics held by the nonprofit Milken Institute, the governor suggested lawmakers would be more willing to embrace his plans to privatize the building of roads, schools, high-speed rail systems and other public works if they could see how effectively it has worked in other countries.
"Some of them come from those little towns, you know what I am saying, they come from those little towns and they don't have that vision yet of an airport or of a highway that maybe has 10 lanes or of putting a highway on top of a highway," Schwarzenegger said. "They look at you and say, 'We don't have that in my town. What are you talking about?'
"So they are kind of shocked when you say certain things. So I like them to travel around."
It's a pretty strange way to frame the argument for a number of reasons. The overall context is Arnold's effort to defend travel junkets paid for by his corporate allies, and using high speed rail trips as an example. A closely related context is Arnold's effort to privatize everything in sight despite the poor track record of privatized government. In fact, if legislators traveled to France or Spain, they'd see a government-run high speed rail system that turns enough of a profit to seed the construction of new lines. Somehow I doubt Arnold's corporate buddies are interested in showing off the positive benefits of European socialism.
Nor am I convinced that telling legislators from small California towns that their horizons are narrow is going to accomplish much. It had a mixed effect on a Republican assemblyman from Hesperia:
Assemblyman Anthony Adams, a Republican from the mid-size city of Hesperia (population 83,000), said Schwarzenegger's comments, "while I'm sure well-intentioned, reek of a certain elitism that doesn't help foster a cooperative working relationship."
Last month, Adams toured Japan's high-speed rail system on a trip organized by the Senate Office of International Relations. He said he paid for the week of travel with campaign money and personal funds, and was impressed that Japan's system is efficient and well-managed.
"I'm awful grateful I did it," said Adams. "It will help me make the case for why high-speed rail is right for California."
I do believe that Arnold is right that Californians should embrace technologies and systems used successfully around the world. We've done this many, many times before, and in a global economy California has to keep up with Europe and Asia or fall permanently behind. And while a surefire way to create a lifelong HSR supporter is to put them on the TGV or the AVE or the Shinkansen, it's not necessary to leave the continent or even the state to see the value of HSR.
Many Californians instinctively understand why HSR is necessary when we explain the need to replace air travel for financial, environmental, and practical reasons; or when we explain the economic and climate benefits of the system. But if we want to go a step further, Arnold should be encouraging Californians to take trips on the state's extensive train network. Ride Metrorail, or Caltrain. Take a trip to Santa Barbara on the Pacific Surfliner, or a trip from Sacramento to the Bay Area on the Capitol Corridor. That would show Californians the value of rail travel as well as get them to see why high speed rail would be so much better than what we already have.
Of course, that would all require Arnold to stop trying to destroy public transportation in California. We welcome his support on HSR, but he also needs to understand HSR works best when there is a strong feeder network of mass transit.