After 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.
Oh, 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 http://democrats.assembly.ca.gov/members/a12/default.aspx.Photo of ICE train in Frankfurt from www.k-report.net.