After many delays and distractions, I finally got a chance to hear how Rod Diridon‘s trip to Hong Kong went.
The Mineta Transportation Institute director and member of the California High Speed Rail Authority found that countries like India and China, where a few trains are still powered by coal and steam, regard the United States as something of a third-world country when it comes to taking full advantage of railroads.
In the same breath lamenting that the $20 billion transportation bond voters approved Nov. 7 has only $4 billion for public transit, Diridon marveled at Chinese and Indian plans to completely electrify their rail networks within a generation.
China also pledged to double its rail network, which must’ve set the AsiaRail 2006 conference on fire, as such events go.
“The amazing thing about both of these countries is that the rest of the world was frightened about these two emerging countries causing global warming,” Diridon remarked. “But they have pragmatically and determinedly chosen not to allow their rapidly evolving economies add to the problem.”
I have to say that when the People’s Republic of China sets its mind to do something, you can more-or-less set your clock to it. That’s the nice thing about a worker’s paradise; the leadership wakes up one morning and decides that maglev is cool, and the next thing you know, Chinese maglev is the envy of Europe.
On the other hand, I’d wonder about India’s plan to electrify its railroads within a decade. It costs money, and even the Great Superpower can’t seem to afford it.
But that’s the lesson from Diridon’s trip.
After giving the keynote speech, Diridon said he was peppered with “some very direct questions about the contribution of the United States to global warming,” what with 4 percent of the world’s population and 30 percent of its carbon dioxide output (excluding wild animals and humans).
“The way you compete in the international marketplace is by moving people to work efficiently,” Diridon went on. “In 20 years, both India and China are going to run circles around us, and that’s because they’re willing to spend the money now on a non-petroleum based diversified transportation system.
“They’ll have a lot of different options to move their products and their people, while we’re stuck with seriously congested rail and truck freight transport systems, not to mention our commuter congestion.”
The rest of the conversation drifted into the viability of California high-speed rail, luckily without touching upon the whole Altamont v. Pacheco pass dispute, but I was struck by the whole third-world charge.
It would be amazing if India and China built up their transportation infrastructure to be run by the cleanest power sources they can hook to their grid (coal seems to be the fuel of choice in China now). I certainly would sleep better at night.
But I’m not holding my breath. It may or may not happen. Those nations with the largest share of humanity are currently predicted to grow just the way everybody else did, choking on soot and spewing greenhouse gases.
The big question for us Americans, as neglectful as we seem to be, is will we step up and use some of that superpower might and know-how to develop our transportation infrastructure for our grandkids?
That might have something to do with Diridon’s dream of high-speed rail, but it could also mean something as simple as expanding and electrifying our existing rail system and separating it from freight lines.
Very few people think rail can replace the automobile or the passenger jet. What the transportation experts say, however, is that we will need all modes of transportation to keep a growing population moving.
I would have loved to have taken the train to Van Nuys for Thanksgiving, and with regular, uninterrupted, faster electric service, I might have been able to do that in a reasonable time for a reasonable price. A direct train would have taken 13 hours. I drove it in 6.
And, praise Caltrans and whomever you choose to pray to, I didn’t hit a lick of traffic.
Photo from www.nr.indianrail.gov.in.