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i’d rather be riding the bullet train

By enelson
Wednesday, April 23rd, 2008 at 6:31 pm in Altamont Commuter Express, Amtrak, BART, Bicycling, Capitol Corridor (Amtrak), connectivity, driving, Environment, fuel, Funding, global warming, high-speed rail, rail, Transit vs. driving.


Ok, if a black man can be nominated for president, maybe California can build high-speed rail.

It’s starting to look like the wind is behind this thing, what with college students campaigning for it all over the state from now until November, when voters will have to decide whether they like the $10 billion bullet train bond measure or not.

I’m still waiting to see what sort of borrowing plan Sacramento will cook up to get us through the current budget crunch. I get the sense, however, that even that won’t stop the bullet train measure from going before voters.

Tomorrow between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., students on UC Berkeley’s famous Sproul Plaza will be riding tricycles, jumping on pogo sticks and walking on stilts while wearing “I’d rather be riding high-speed rail” t-shirts.

These students, sold on the idea that the bullet train is public transportation’s answer to the Prius and a major way of fighting global warming, have been pulling off stunts like this up and down the state. While the students’ enthusiasm at first blush might evoke comparisons to Barack Obama’s youthful appeal, I see it a bit differently.

The presidential parallel I see in the bullet train’s renaissance resides in John McCain’s candidacy. Obama, after all, is a fresh face, a new hope, if you will. Like John McCain, high-speed rail is an idea that became popular in the past, then faded from the public’s imagination as we all got on with our miserable, gas-guzzling lives.

Now this rather old idea, which came of age during the Vietnam War on foreign soil, is suddenly and unexpectedly on the ballot for real this time.

The timing couldn’t be better. In the past, high-speed rail seemed like a passing fancy, a groovy idea but not too compatible with a 90-cent-a-gallon gas, 1974 Chevy Impala-driving  society.

Since then, we’ve been on the roller-coaster of oil crises, economy cars, cheap gas and my-4-by-4′s-bigger-than-yours.

Today we live in a world where Iran has gasoline riots, where the law of supply-and-demand has finally kicked in at California gas-n-gos and a lot of us know people who face death daily trying to keep one of our major oil suppliers from falling to pieces.

And a growing number of Californians are almost literally warming to the idea that an investment of tens of billions of dollars might be justified to make a major stab at carbon emissions from the millions of vehicles that sputter up and down I-5 and U.S. 101 between two of America’s megaregions.

This year my house was picked for the Census Bureau’s annual Community Survey, in which a large sampling of the populace is asked a host of demographic questions which are then extrapolated into data representing the population as a whole.

This year’s theme seems to be commuting distances. I was asked where I start and finish and how many minutes I commute. I had to think about this one, because last week, as you may have read, I ended up driving when I didn’t want to because my NOT high-speed train got stuck behind a freight train for two hours plus.

It asked the mode used last week that covered the most distance, so I had to say train, because an aggregate of three out of five days were train commutes.

I also had to do some soul searching to report the minutes of my typical commute. I wanted to say two hours, as I normally tell people. But that’s really just the normal train trip. From the time I leave my house to the time I arrive at work is really closer to 2:20.

I’m not going to belabor my reasons for living way out in the Central Valley, other than I did it for love. But I am where I am, and that puts me on one of those pogo sticks, from a couple of perspectives, wearing one of those HSR t-shirts.

But I don’t think it’s just me that pines for an alternative to driving-as-usual. The entire nation is talking about high speed rail. There are communities in Arkansas lobbying for Texas’ high-speed rail to come on by. It seems like every state with a major city has some sort of effort in the works, to say nothing of other nations, such as Morocco and India.

The problem is that this isn’t China, where leaders can get up in the morning, rub their eyes and decide to spend billions on maglev. This isn’t socialist-leaning Europe, where citizens are used to giving up half their incomes to taxes and government spending involves a bit more wiggle room.

But this is the land of fearless indebtedness, so we may well plunk down our collective Visa card and take this baby for a spin in 2020 or so.

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11 Responses to “i’d rather be riding the bullet train”

  1. Andrew Says:

    You are right to highlight the differences between the US and Europe and China. There is no excuse for us not having high speed rail, the explanation is that we are slaves to the system and the system said no a long time ago. We are all left to deal with this now. When Europe and Japan started there projects 50 years ago it was expensive, but they did it and now it pays them back. So get on the darn train people and stop complaining about how you have to drive 4 miles in the wrong direction to get from your pre fab shack at Shady Mountain Beach Desert Oasis Estate Villa Community Land to Savemart over your back fence.

  2. Robert Cruickshank Says:

    Actually, most European systems are much more recent. The first TGV line opened in 1981 and the first AVE line (Spain) opened in 1992. The AVE system has been massively expanded in the last 4 years and is in the midst of a big construction boom – by 2010 one will be able to ride from Malaga on the southern Spanish coast to Paris on high speed rail.

    What France, Spain, and Taiwan all show is that you don’t need to have had a 30-year head start. There is still time to start HSR projects today and have them up and running within several years. It would have been best if CA had voted on the HSR bonds in 2004, but we’ll take 2008.

  3. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Robert, I assume that by several years, you mean a dozen. The latest estimate from CHSRA is 2020 for revenue service. You make a good point about Spain, especially, showing the rest of the world that it can be done, even in today’s challenging political and economic climate.

  4. Capricious Commuter Says:

    By the way, the pogo sticks didn’t materialize, making for a much less photogenic CalPIRG event.

  5. Becks Says:

    I’m glad you’re coming around on HSR. Your McCain analogy is fitting in some ways, except that I’d be shocked to hear McCain supporting HSR. He’s no public transit supporter and even wants to cut all federal funding to Amtrak.

  6. Reedman Says:

    I work with French engineers, and showed one of them the video that heads this article:
    – it is the record speed run of TGV (French bullet train). Top speed of 574.8 kilometers per hour (357.2 miles per hour).
    – at about 0:38 seconds in, a bug hits the camera. (If someone was on the track, they would look the same …)
    – Alstom (original spelling was Alsthom) is the company that does all the hardware work for the TGV system. They originally were in the electric motor business, and are now the contractor for all the TGV work. They build the Amtrak California trains, and built the 1980 vintage C1 BART trains.
    – SNCF, the French railroad company, had $1 billion euros profit last year. This is due to passengers. It loses money on freight. There is a separate money-losing company that actually owns and operates the tracks.
    – When a train goes down the line, the catenary pushes up on the feed wire, and this creates a mechanical wave that travels both directions. To perform the record breaking run, the wire had to be re-tensioned to a very high value to prevent the wire from separating from the pickup (you can see some of the arcing in the video).

  7. Reedman Says:

    A vocabulary correction to my previous post here: the catenary is the overhead wire. The pantograph is the mechanical arm on the train that pushes up against the wire.

  8. Martin Engel Says:

    Erik, apparently you have been swept away by the tide of passionate advocacy that fills the blogosphere. As I have learned, any challenges, questioning or skepticism regarding the high-speed train religion will result in excommunication and witch burning.

    Please, please think a moment. Doesn’t anything this expensive, with such grandiose promises, warrant some thoughtfulness?

    Does it not strike you as problematic when they promise 117 million riders annually? How about the $55. tickets from SF to LA? How about the $3 billion in annual revenue and $1 billion in annual profits? How about the 450,000 new permanent jobs? How about the $40 billion in total costs with no tax increases or additional state funding?
    How about their voter polling data? How about their comparisons of current emissions of cars and planes vs. the train’s superior performance in 18 years? Does none of this raise some eyebrows? How about the fact-free comparisons with Japan and Europe as prototypes to be envied and copied here, as if that made sense?

    Are you not struck by the relentless repetition of the same “facts,” taken from their press-releases, as if these are hard empirical data, rather than projections, speculation and guesses? If you have looked at all at the history of the lead participants in their political machinations to get this project on the books, doesn’t some doubt creep into you mind and suggest that further investigation might be called for? Doesn’t the name Parsons Brinckerhoff raise some red flags in your mind?

    Erik, I cannot tell you how disappointed I am with the press for its failure to do its
    job to ask the hard questions, rather than parrot those easy and questionable answers.

  9. david vartanoff Says:

    Martin, Erik and all, Of course the ## are smoke and mirrors. BUT, so have been the estimates for essentially ALL major infrastructure projects in human history. The Transcontinental RR, the Big Drip(Dig), the Interstates, the Chunnel, all cost double or more than promised. And, we won’t even talk about the $72 hex wrenches DOD buys. From where I sit, even @ $40 billion to build full HSR for the state, the benefit in decreased auto/airplane pollution makes it worthwhile.

  10. Eric Schatmeier Says:

    Right on, Martin Engel. We poor, persecuted, bullet train skeptics, are constantly beaten, ostracized and, yes, sometimes killed, for fighting the lonely fight to preserve the sanity of our current transportation system! Attempting, over astronomical odds, and before our pitiful underground media outlets are cut off from us by advocacy fascists, to show that continuous, unlimited public resources should be limited to only one transportation mode, the one that we use.

    And the insidious influence of the advocates has even taken over government. Governor Schwarzen has been steamrollered into putting trains on the ballot and letting the people decide. What a cockeyed way to make transportation policy! Everyone knows that we didn’t allow “the people” to design our current system. Can you imagine if there’d been a statewide vote on Interstate 5? The “people” might have said no! And where would that have left the truck stop industry?

    So what should true believers in common sense do? How can they stem the rising tide of advocacy that has taken over media, government and business? For one thing, keep fighting the good fight! There were plenty of studies done in the 50′s that showed that rail and public transportation were inconvenient and inflexible. As a result, today’s transportation promotes freedom and independence (as long as you stay off the roads between 5 a.m. and 9 a.m. and between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.). We need to get back to the days when privately financed rail lines were torn up and replaced by publicly funded roads and people learned the benefits of living far from where they worked in neighborhoods where everybody was exactly like them. We need to return to a time where governors and U.S. presidents always mention High Speed Rail in the State of the Union or state addresses and then allot about $100 to it in their budgets. And we need to return to a day when the news media talks about the “car culture” and America’s “love affair with the automobile” as an immutable feature of American life instead of claiming that trains actually work in places like Germany, France and Japan. (Actually, it’s common knowledge that, like the so-called “Lunar Landings,” footage, the CapCom’s High Speed Rail video is a hoax.). Finally, what we really need is a leader, a champion, a fighter like Charlton Hest to lead our cause and keep hope alive.

    In the meantime, I repeat. “Right on Martin Engel.”

  11. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Martin, I’m disappointed in you, too. You turned down a chance to be on “Forum” to go head-to-head with Quentin Kopp! I would have tuned in for that exchange, but alas, it is not to be. As for the other stuff, it’s been a long week and I don’t have the energy to get into it right now. Chalk it up to the media shirking its responsibilities once again.

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