Heads up: The Blogger service will be down for about 10 minutes of scheduled maintenance at 12:00AM PDT on Monday, June 15. We apologize for any inconvenience.
Also, I will be traveling to Germany this week for a few days on business. There will be Open Threads on both Monday and Tuesday, followed by the promised post on the new features and poll on the new banner options later in the week.
In his article "Getting Up To Speed" published in the New York Times magazine section on June 10, Jon Gertner discusses why California is pursuing high speed rail at all. He also mentions obstacles past, present and future and, looks into what HSR has done for other countries - notably France.
While I encourage you to head over to the Gray Lady for the full article, here are a few quotes:
- Earlier this year, President Obama, who on a trip to France in April conceded he was "jealous" of European high-speed trains, submitted budget and stimulus plans that together allocated approximately $13 billion for high-speed rail over the next five years. It seems almost certain that at least some of that money, and perhaps a significant percentage of it, will go this fall to California’s project, which is the most developed of any U.S. high-speed-rail plan. Ray LaHood, the U.S. secretary of transportation, told me recently that Californians "are obviously way, way ahead of everyone else."
- Judging by the experiences of Japan and France, both of which have mature high-speed rail systems, [California High Speed Rail] would end the expansion of regional airline traffic as in-state travelers increasingly ride the fast trains. And it would surely slow the growth of highway traffic. Other potential benefits are also intriguing: a probable economic windfall for several cities along the route, with rejuvenated neighborhoods and center cities; several hundred thousand jobs in construction, manufacturing, operations and maintenance; and the environmental benefits that come from vehicles far more efficient and far less polluting than jets, buses and cars.
- As someone who never understood the zealotry of hard-core train enthusiasts, I found the project’s other selling points more compelling: center city to center city in a few hours without airport lines or onerous security checks. No bus connections. No traffic. And no counting on luck [for on-time performance].
- On a plane at 30,000 feet or in a car on a highway whose inclines have been tamed and curves eased, you can forget the great sweep of California’s topography. Rediscovering it on the Surfliner is something to say in its favor.
- The rail authority has never been especially popular; for years its cause has been criticized as a science-fiction dream and, more recently, a government boondoggle to dwarf all previous government boondoggles. Even for the less cynical — editorial boards and legislators, mainly — legitimate philosophical questions about its mission have never fully subsided. Can California really afford such a project? Shouldn’t transportation dollars be spent instead on upgrading urban mass transit or commuter rail, both of which would also ease freeway traffic? Over the past decade, specific parts of the rail plan — tunnels, mountain passes, stations, environmental impacts, costs, ridership estimates, the technologies needed, you name it — have been challenged at nearly every turn by officials and citizens alike, as have the motives and wisdom of rail-authority board members and staff employees.
- One of the most crucial distinctions with the [bullet] trains, finally, is invisible: they have a signaling technology, called "positive train control," that keeps tabs on the location of the trains in operation. If a train gets close to the one ahead of it, it slows down automatically — or shuts down altogether if it gets too close. A big seismic tremor or act of sabotage trips the system, too.
- [California High Speed Rail] will require an entirely new set of safety regulations from the Federal Rail Administration. The F.R.A. has largely focused on requiring trains to demonstrate crash worthiness, whereas in Europe and Asia the emphasis is on avoiding crashes.
- By law — that is, according to the bond measure that authorizes the rail project — the California train has to travel between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 2 hours 40 minutes. Adding distance might add too much time. [CHSRA Engineering Coordinator Tony] Daniels showed me a printout of a computer model demonstrating how a particular German high-speed train, one of the best in the world, would do on the longer route. "It comes in at 2 hours 39 minutes and 53 seconds,” he said. “That’s too tight for me."
- At some point soon, perhaps by 2012, the rail planners will start the procurement process, Daniels told me. The project calls for around 100 trains, each about 656 feet long, each holding 400 to 500 passengers and each costing $30 million to $35 million.
- At peak times, double-decker trains carrying more than 1,000 people leave Paris every 30 minutes for Lyon. "Those trains are full, full, full," [President of Alstom Transport] Mellier told me.
- When I spoke with LaHood, I asked what the administration learned from the experiences of Japan and France. "That these things can’t happen unless you have real intense involvement from the government," he replied.
- When I asked Schwarzenegger about the social effects of a rail line, he quickly replied, "I think people will look at the state and not just say, 'Oh, my God, I have to go from the south to the north, what a schlep.' "
- CHSRA will not seek additional funds from the state of California, beyond the $9 billion in GO bonds that voters approved in November 2008
- The revised definition of the starter line is SF - Anaheim, not just to LA. CHSRA has estimated the cost for it at $30-$35 billion.
- The distance from Bakersfield to Merced along hwy 99/UPRR ROW is around 158 miles, not 58.
- Kawasaki Heavy Industries (Japan), Talgo (Spain) and others also know how to build trains capable of running at 220mph. It's just that there are as yet very few track sections in the world designed to permit such speeds in commercial operation.
Considering that California will ultimately ask Congress for $12-$16 billion to supplement state and other funding in the starter line, it's good to see such extensive reporting about the project from an East Coast journalist. If nothing else, Mr. Gertner's article underlines how the success or failure of Express HSR in the Golden State has the potential to make or break future prospects for this clean, safe and efficient mode of medium-distance transportation in other states. After aborted attempts in Florida and Texas, it's all the more important that California stick to its plans while also fixing the state's dire budget crisis.