Is California's high speed rail future on display in Russia? According to Siemens and the New York Times the answer just might be "yes":
Siemens’s new train — the Sapsan, Russian for peregrine falcon — is a candidate for the high-speed link planned between San Francisco and Los Angeles that may open in 2020. Alstom, the maker of the French TGV trains, and Bombardier are also contenders. Japanese bullet train designs by Hitachi, which are lighter but less secure in a low-speed crash, the only type of collisions survivable, are another option.
The technological breakthrough of the Sapsan is that the train has no locomotive. Instead, electric motors are attached to wheels all along the train cars, as on some subway trains. (Passengers sit in the first car too.) Its top operating speed is 217 miles an hour, though in tests this model has reached 255 miles an hour, or about half the cruising speed of some jet airplanes.
For now, though the Sapsan will only be traveling at about 150mph over Russia's dilapidated rails.
Siemens is aggressively pursuing the US market, particularly us Californians:
The United States “is a developing country in terms of rail,” Ansgar Brockmeyer, head of public transit business for Siemens, said in an interview aboard the Russian test train, as wooden country homes and birch forests flickered by outside the window. “We are seeing it as a huge opportunity.”
To position itself to compete in the United States, Siemens has placed employees from its high-speed train division at its Sacramento factory, which produces city trams.
California desperately needs jobs like those that would be created building high speed trainsets in Sacramento. Opponents of HSR argue that the risk of a "boondoggle" is greater than the value of the jobs that would be created - 160,000 for the construction of the project, and 450,000 ongoing jobs, according to CHSRA estimates. I have a very difficult time believing that to be the case, especially when California faces the highest unemployment since the end of World War II.
But back to Russia (for a moment). Jaunted, a "pop culture travel blog," wondered if this was a case of "the space race race moving to the rails." It would be nice if we could move past Cold War metaphors when comparing the US to Russia, but clearly the space race was an iconic era in the 20th century, where international rivalry produced major human accomplishments that might not otherwise have gotten done. And as much as I support space exploration, it is undeniable that HSR provides more immediate and tangible benefits than putting a man on the moon.
What really matters is that nations like Russia, Poland and others are recognizing that having a high speed rail network is essential to their future economic prosperity. The US is not immune, despite what those who refuse to admit that the transportation models of the 20th century no longer work would have us believe.
I don't have any plans to be in Russia anytime soon, but if I did, I'd take time to ride the Sapsan.