Sunday, July 13, 2008

HSR as Strategic Value

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

There's a fascinating op-ed in the Yomiuri Shimbun by Yoshiyuki Kasai, chairman of the Central Japan Railway Company, focusing on the strategic importance of HSR. Kasai makes a point I've been trying to push out here on the blog - that in the 21st century, a global economy is simply not competitive without something like high speed rail. Dependence on oil is the mounted cavalry of our time.

I don't agree with all that Kasai writes - he supports maglev, for example - but it's a useful read on how the global perspective is changing. Non-oil based infrastructure projects aren't just a way to move people. They're a sign of modernity, of a society that has both feet firmly planted in the 21st century, of a society that looks ahead to the strategic challenges of a new era and chooses to meet them sensibly, instead of choosing to foolishly cling to the delusional belief that the 20th century can continue.

Railway services are regaining importance in the 21st century as a high-speed means of transit amid the global recognition of energy security and environmental protection as the most pressing priorities for mankind in the new century

In the 19th century, European states regarded railway construction as a synonym for industrialization and expansion of imperial rule. In the United States, private companies, spearheading transcontinental railway construction, played the strategic role in opening up the frontier and, with state-sanctioned privileges, developed vast areas at their discretion. For its part, Japan joined the railway development race half a century later. By the end of the 19th century, 750,000 kilometers of railroad tracks had been laid around the world.

It may be hard for us to imagine, but the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Transcontinental Railroad were the moon shot and ICBM of their time. Before the cheap oil boom temporarily revolutionized transportation, nations understood that a vibrant rail infrastructure was essential for economic development. Today most nations now understand that HSR is similarly necessary for strategic advancement - witness the massive HSR program in Spain, or the continuing expansion of the French syste, or the project in places as diverse as Argentina, Morocco, Iran, and Vietnam. If California thinks they can remain globally competitive without a reliable method of moving people around the state that isn't dependent on sky-high oil prices they're insane.

Today, a short while after the beginning of the 21st century, high-speed railways are gaining a new dimension of strategic importance. Needless to say, high-speed railway operations that ensure safe, punctual and rapid mass transit have tremendous advantages in meeting 21st-century requirements, such as advanced energy consumption efficiency and the use of nuclear electric power and other clean energy sources.

Notice what Kasai points out as having "strategic importance" - safe, punctual, rapid mass transit. Advanced consumption efficiency, the use of clean energy sources. Nuclear is surely controversial, but California's wind and solar potential is among the most promising in the world. The CHSRA is expected to release its own study on renewable and carbon-neutral energy sources anytime now, and BART has embraced solar power. The strategic challenge of the 21st century is no longer to build enough aircraft carriers or freeways - it's whether we can build infrastructure that can keep a modern society functioning without being dependent on fossil fuels.

Many countries, including the United States, which has so far been less enthusiastic about high-speed railways, are showing interest in rapid transit development. Such a situation effectively means that Japan, which boasts a decisive edge over other countries in the fields of high-speed transit technology, expertise, installation and operations, now has a strategic card in its hand.

Japan has a right to brag here. A nation that is famously dependent on imported resources can boast a transportation system that is largely, if not totally, self-sustaining. France can make the same boast, as its power comes mostly from nuclear sources. Does California really believe it can keep up with just Southwest Airlines and Interstate 5?

Kasai argues that the US should follow the European model and use public funds to build the infrastructure while using HSR fare revenues to pay for the operating expenses. It would be an investment on par with those we made in the middle of the 20th century, when we built bridges, freeways and aqueducts with public money that were essential to California's dramatic late 20th century economic prosperity. If we wish our prosperity to continue we need to make a similar investment in our time - and HSR is that investment, as Kasai argues:

If a maglev train plan is adopted by the United States, Japan should consider exporting the best of its high-speed railway system to its ally. Now that high-speed railway transit is considered essential for the strategic needs of the 21st century, it is significant that Japanese technology could contribute to such a U.S. initiative as a key step to consolidating the alliance between the two countries.

How secure an alliance is can be determined not only by military cooperation, but also by multifaceted and collaborative relationships through the sharing of roles and interdependence in industrial fields.

That's how Kasai ends his article, and though we can substitute HSR for maglev, I really like how he closes. Global relationships in the 21st century will not be sustained by military cooperation, but by the "multifaceted and collaborative relationships" described here. America's longtime allies in Japan, France, and Germany have an enormous amount of technical skill and innovation to share with us - as well as capital. Perhaps it is time for an American Marshall Plan, where those nations we helped in the late 1940s can come and return the favor in the 2010s by providing the technical knowhow to help California join the 21st century and build high speed rail.

As with the original Marshall Plan, though, the benefits weren't given - you had to ask for them. President Truman didn't ride around Europe throwing dollar bills from the back of a truck, and nobody will do so today. If Californians don't pass Proposition 1 this year, they will be consigning themselves to permanent and fatal dependence on an obsolete model of fueling our economy. Friends around the world like Yoshiyuki Kasai want to help us help ourselves. Why would we say no?


Anonymous said...

Amazing how those in the business don't seem worried about the airline business disappering.


The world's largest air show opened Monday with aerospace executives upbeat about the future of the industry despite the likelihood
of far fewer orders for new planes because of high fuel prices and the credit crisis.

Robert Cruickshank said...

The airlines are focusing on medium and long-range flights, and are turning to HSR to provide the short-range service and bring passengers to the airports for the longer flights. This is going on around the world, and Air France is just the leading edge. Nobody claimed the airline business will disappear - but it is going to be fundamentally changed, and without HSR, California will be left in the lurch.

Anonymous said...

The State Senate appropriations committee passed AB-3034 today 7/14/08 with a vote along party lines.

However, Perata has delayed voting on the bill in the full Senate because the needed 2/3 majority vote for passage is missing.

Apparently the delay will be until after the Senate comes back from summer recess.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Thanks for the info, Morris. There's an article in the Fresno Bee that suggests Perata pulled it because Republicans and Dems couldn't agree on oversight language, presumably surrounding the business plan but perhaps about larger issues as well.

I also know that my own State Senator, Abel Maldonado, has been somewhat skeptical and concerned that there's nothing in this for his district. Apparently he's forgotten that his district includes southern Santa Clara County and that the whole Central Coast would benefit from the $1 billion in non-HSR rail funding in the bond measure.

The delay is unfortunate since the Senate's recess doesn't end until early August.