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357 miles per hour: too fast for Fresno?

By enelson
Wednesday, April 4th, 2007 at 5:35 pm in Capitol Corridor (Amtrak), Environment, Freeways, Funding, high-speed rail, rail, technology.

tgv-record.jpgAfter dropping $208 plus $105 in Commuter Checks for my monthly train ticket today, I should feel ripped off that it takes me 90 minutes to get to Oakland from the Central Valley.

Especially so after reading today that Assemblywoman Fiona Ma took a train that went a record-breaking 357 miles per hour through the Champagne region of France, the same type of train that I know could get me to Oakland in 11 minutes for a price so low that migrant farm workers would choose not to drive.

You think this is some kind of joke?

OK, I’ll admit the California High-Speed Rail Authority has not planned a direct route down I-80, but if they did, I’m assured by the authority that a ticket would be cheap enough for any Californian who can afford to drive to Bakersfield or Burbank.

Don’t believe me?

According to the authority’s 2005 estimates, a high-speed trip to LA from San Francisco would set you back $56 — twice as high as the 1999 estimates, but still about a quarter of what an economy TGV ticket costs.

Please don’ t get the impression that I’m anti-high-speed rail. Far from it. Like Ma, I think the system could be quite valuable.

Ma’s half-the-speed-of-sound jaunt brought back memories of when I was just a little train commuter in Germany. On my way to my normal, second-class carriage, I’d walk along the platform past the InterCity Express. I would look into the windows at the low-riding dining car, marveling at the china settings on linen tablecloths with plates of Brötchen next to sculpted pats of butter and tiny crocks of marmalade.

ice-in-frankfurt.jpgOh, how I wanted to eat those rolls and zoom down the tracks at whatever the top speed was then. This wasn’t just a Baby Bullet train that skipped a few stops, this was an Express Train that skipped all the stops, went much faster and did it with style.

And I did, eventually, many years later with my half-German wife and a first-class rail pass. It was thrilling, and it made me think, why doesn’t America have such service?

The answer, for now, is simple: We fly and we drive. If you’ve got a carload of Model United Nations competitors that you need to get to UCLA, you drive. Flying would be nice, but all those tickets would be prohibitively expensive. If it’s just you and maybe one other person, Southwest or JetBlue will do nicely.

The high-speed rail people will tell you this isn’t sustainable, and they’re probably right. In a couple of decades, California will be so populous that driving will be a nightmare and airports won’t have the capacity to match travelers’ demand.

If people actually used the thing and could afford it, high-speed rail could also go a long way to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

So, um, what would you say to passing a $10 billion bond to get the project started?

After voters already passed $42.7 billion in infrastructure in November, it’s probable that they’d be somewhat leery of authorizing even more state debt in 2008, as most recently planned. And this particular infrastructure bond would be something like taking out a second mortgage to install a sonic cleaning system in your house.

What’s a sonic cleaning system? Well, it’s really great, it will make your life easier and it costs an estimated $33-38 billion.

To quote Fiona Ma out of context, “it’s a little scary.”

Photo of high-speed TGV train from of ICE train in Frankfurt from

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26 Responses to “357 miles per hour: too fast for Fresno?”

  1. Michael Says:

    HSR sounds expensive, until you look at the costs of expanding the airports, or widening I-5.

    And there’s a practical limit to those airport/freeway expansions. Do we really want to use finite airport capacity for intrastate travel?

    We fly and drive because those are the only options offered to us.

  2. Aaron Priven Says:

    If I recall correctly, a few years ago the LAX administrators proposed improvements there — just to that one airport — that would cost $2 billion. Building a high speed rail network that connected San Francisco, Sacramento, Fresno, Stockton, Bakersfield, and LA would go a long way toward reducing the need for such expansions by taking small not particularly efficient plane trips and turning them into much more efficient rail trips. Expanding it to Las Vegas, Phoenix, San Diego, and Tucson would do even more.

  3. david vartanoff Says:

    not to mention the lame idea some years ago to expand runways @ SFO into the BAY @ similar cost. As a first day rider of the Metroliner which preceded the Acelas between NY and DC I note it sparked a resurgemce in rail travel in that market. Today Atk outhauls the airlines. HSR could do that here. Look at the example of Caltrain–make the train faster and the riders show up.

  4. Michael Says:

    The LAX expansion was going to be $11 billion until it was cancelled.

  5. Capricious Commuter Says:

    David, you’re right. Make the train faster and the riders not only show up, but they embarass BART.

  6. Derrick Says:

    I hope that a plan is made to improve the Capitol Corridor. (A plan seperate from the
    CAHSR proposal) Build a NEW dedicated track system with electric all the way. Maybe a
    toned down version of a 120MPH or so. Then I wouldn’t care if they didn’t choose the Altamont option. Sacramento is a metro of 2.3 Million, and the Bay is 7 million. Time to get out of the stone age!! These areas SHOULD be connected with fast, reliable transportation.

  7. Reedman Says:

    We already have a dedicated track, electric rail system in the Bay Area.
    It’s called BART. It stops about 8 miles from the
    10th largest city in the US. In California, that’s what passes for
    public works transportation planning.
    The reason people fly and drive is because the government
    doesn’t get involved with providing
    or operating automobiles or airplanes.


  8. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    Presently, the fastest way from Northern California to Los Angeles by rail is to take the Valley train to Bakersfield, and then take a bus the rest of the way. It would be much more convenient if there were a direct Bakersfield to LA rail route. Even if the speeds were comparable to current bus speeds, it would be pretty popular, probably carrying as many passengers as the capacity of a high speed rail route.

    Completing that rail line would cost a tiny fraction of what an entirely new rail line would cost, especially a high speed line. The operating expenses would be much less. If it would carry the same number of passengers, why not build that instead? Then it would be easier to gauge the demand for high speed service.

  9. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Bruce, I looked into using the San Joaquins train to get to Bakersfield and then take a bus to Van Nuys when I needed to get there for Thanksgiving. If the train had gone all the way through, I would certainly have left my car at home. The whole idea of being able to nod off on the way there and on the way home was very appealing. I thought seriously about taking train and bus, but that just took too long to make the hassle of not having a car in LA worthwhile.

  10. david vartanoff Says:

    Indeed the first leg of HSR should be that link through a new alignment. the existing route is slow and clogged

  11. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    “The hassle of not having a car” is the crux of the problem. The biggest need in the country, not just California, is for adequate local mass transit, not for intercity transit. Intercity transit like Amtrak, BART, and CalTrain are not as effective as they could because of a lack of local transit.

    This manifests itself in two major ways: they become a poor value for users, and they serve fewer areas. They are a poor value because if you have to drive to a station, you have to pay all of the costs of car ownership, depreciation, insurance and maintenance. They are the biggest portion of the cost of driving. Intercity transit serves fewer areas if you cannot get to more local destinations because of a lack of connecting transit.

    Imagine that when the interstate highway system came along, that the government said, “Now that you have the interstates, you no longer need the streets that go to your home, so we will just shut them down.” That is essentially the way mass transit is treated in this country.

  12. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Bruce, have you BEEN to Los Angeles? I hear what you’re saying about adequate transit, but some places are just plain hopeless. In LA, transit is convenient if your origin and destination have the harmonic convergence of location and access to rapid transit. In the Bay Area, those odds tend to be pretty good. In LA, they diminish somewhat. My work was near a bus line, but not an express bus that could use separate lanes on the freeway. I could get from home to downtown (which is a misnomer in and of itself) on such a bus in a mere 40 minutes. Then I had to take another “express” bus that sat in traffic on the Ventura Freeway with everybody else. To take the most direct route, I had to take an even slower set of buses, one local bus to get me to the airport, an express bus to get me over the Sepulveda Pass, a Rapid Bus down Ventura Boulevard and a local bus for the extra mile to work. Five buses to get 39 miles in three hours plus. The question that follows this is usually, “what about light rail? the subway?” Ask me. I dare you.

  13. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    That is the point. Local transit is inadequate. We should not be spending gobs on money for long-distance transit until the local transit is taken care of.

    Of course, the question is not “What about light rail or the subway?” The question is “What about separated rights of way?” Separated rights of way are the only real advantage to local rail, and rail is not necessary for that. Separated rights of way with more flexible vehicles is the best of both worlds.

    Maybe the biggest question is “What serves the most people for the least amount of money (or environmental damage, or whatever)?” That was really the point of the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union lawsuit, which forced the transit services to reevaluate their plans.

  14. Reedman Says:

    Dedicated ROW (right-of-way) is the worst aspect of present day rail. The reason
    that street cars were able to be an efficient form of transport years ago was
    because when a street car wasn’t there, the pavement was used by cars,
    buses, bicycles, and pedestrians. Now, we have miles of track that has all of
    four trains/vehicles per hour and is fenced off so it can’t be crossed.

    sarcasm on:

    Wow, what a good use of land and money.

    If you took the rail ROW in the Bay Area and made it available to cars, traffic problems would be ….

    Actually, the fastest way from NorCal to SoCal by train is to take Caltrain to Gilroy
    and drive the rest of the way.


  15. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    The only reason that driving from Gilroy to Southern California is fast is because cars have dedicated rights of way.

  16. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Reedman and Bruce, I take both of your points about rights-of-way, but I also take issue.

    Reedman, since the street cars have not been around in my lifetime, I’ll assume that you’re correct about how efficient it was to have them tooling about with cars and trucks. But what’s going on today? Is it efficient to have a rail system (or bus system) on which main-line vehilces get stuck in traffic?

    The dedicatec right-of-way means that when people want to get from point A to point B, they get there as fast as the vehicle can go without flying off of that dedicated right-of-way. If you can’t do that, you’re not going to get car-owners to ride the thing in significant numbers.

    Bruce, you’re absolutely correct about the Gilroy to SoCal trip, but what’s your point? We should take away that right-of-way?

    If I were king, I would run tracks alongside every major freeway in the country, and put light and fast rail on them, so every time motorists get stuck in traffic, they’d see the trains blowing by.

    I’d also make fares comparable with the cost of driving, i.e., families would get a huge discount.

  17. Reedman Says:

    I would like to make one modest point. By my
    definition (perhaps not by univeral acclaim) highways are
    shared ROW and train tracks are not.

    My argument:
    If you walk down any train ROW, you will be arrested.
    If you bicycle down any train ROW, you will be arrested.
    It’s OK bike and walk along any road/highway ROW,
    as long as it’s not considered “limited access”.
    Transit buses use the same highways my car does.
    Light rail tracks (Muni, VTA, wherever) are used by no
    other person, agency, or transit provider than the one
    and only. BART track are used only
    by BART. Heavy rail tracks other than Caltrain are all privately owned,
    by my understanding. Caltrain tracks are only used by Caltrain. The few
    instances of more than one user (of say the Union Pacific
    tracks by Amtrak or ACE) involves heavy negotiations, payment
    of fees, and fixed schedules.


  18. david vartanoff Says:

    correcting Reedman. Muni LRV surface trackage with a few exceptions are in the traffic lanes of streets amd subject to massive auto interference. Caltrain bought the tracks subject to freight usage in off hours.

  19. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    Reedman, do you really think that you can drive to Los Angeles faster than you can ride in a train if you never use a “limited access” road, which is a dedicated right of way?

    You can be arrested for walking on most roads. You have to use a parallel right of way instead, usually a sidewalk. There are many rail rights of way that have parallel rights of way for cars, pedestrians, bicycles, etc. There are a number of BART rights of way that have them, such as in Albany and El Cerrito.

    Streetcar lines that survived did so only because they had at least some dedicated rights of way. This included all of the Key System lines that made it past the end of the depreciation cycle in the late 1940’s, and all of the San Francisco lines, with the possible exception of the new T line.

    Transbay bus lines operate on rights of way dedicated to buses (and occasionally carpool vehicles) even now. It increases their speed by bypassing the toll plaza.

    But all this is beside the point. Speed comes when there is a right of way that reduces traffic impediments. My point was that it is not necessary for the vehicle to run on rails, and there are significant advantages to using more flexible vehicles, usually buses, that can use the dedicated right of way for speed, and other roads for versatility. Just like cars using freeways as well as streets.

  20. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Bruce, not to take away from your points about rights-of-way, but I, for one, would gladly race you to LA on non-freeway roads while you took the Coast Starlight. Even if it could keep to is schedule, it takes at least double what it takes to drive on a good day. Even off the freeway, you could do better than that, and still have time for lunch on the way.

  21. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    The Starlight is slow for other reasons, mostly due to the fact that the railroad, which pays property taxes and its own operating costs, has to compete with trucks which use roads which pay no taxes and are heavily subsidized from the public trough. The only way to do that is by carrying bigger loads at slower speeds. If you look at the historical schedules for the Coast Daylights and the other San Francisco to Los Angeles trains, you will find that they were much faster before the tracks were rebuilt for the modern economic situation.

    All this is beside the point. You were complaining about being caught in the traffic in a bus, and hinting that a LRV would alleviate that. It is not the LRV that would speed it up, it is the dedicated right of way.

  22. Mike A Says:


    “According to the authority’s 2005 estimates, a high-speed trip to LA from San Francisco would set you back $56 — twice as high as the 1999 estimates, but still about a quarter of what an economy TGV ticket costs.”

    The Rail Europe site is a site that caters to (i.e., overcharges) gullible US tourists. Using it for a TGV fare reference is like assuming that SF cable car commuters pay the $5/ride tourist fare. Of course we don’t – we pay about $1/ride using the Fast Pass.

    I can price out roundtrip itineraries from Paris to Marseilles for as low as 66 Euro on the SNCF website, and that is without even using a rail discount card (which many Europeans have). Using current nominal exchange rates, that is about $88 for a roundtrip, but that is mainly because the US dollar happens to be so weak right now. A more realistic exchange rate, given that domestic rail travel is a non-tradable good, would be the purchasing power parity exchange rate, which would put the price at around $69. Still more than $56, but it’s nowhere near 4 times as much.

    Of course, this being the US, I expect we might build (and possibly run) the system in a less efficient manner than the French. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be burdened with the need to cross-subsidize the rest of the system (TGV profits are expected to help make up for losses on SNCF regional/commuter trains), because it would be a totally separate entity from Amtrak.

  23. Reedman Says:

    Not to get too many rail topics in discussion at once,
    but I couldn’t pass up sharing this tidbit from today WSJ about
    what can happen when rail commuting gets too popular
    (the main station in Mumbai handles 1000 people per minute
    at rush hour, 6 million people per day per day use Mumbai rail transit):

    The suburban sprawl created by India’s economic growth has resulted in what may be the world’s most dangerous rail commute. According to Mumbai police: 3,404 people, or about 13 each weekday, were killed in 2006.

  24. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Reedman, those 13 people a day were killed how? As passengers in collisions? I rather doubt that, but I’d like to know. If I had to guess, I’d say they were a combination of people simply dying on the train from other causes (natural, criminal), track-crossers being run over and people killed in the pressing crowds by crushing or suffocation.

  25. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

  26. Inside Bay Area > The Capricious Commuter > end of the maze craze Says:

    […] Caltrans is gonna open this baby a day early, once again shocking people with quickness that the High-Speed Rail Authority can only write op-eds […]

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