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high-speed rail through a child’s eyes

By enelson
Monday, May 12th, 2008 at 11:01 pm in Capitol Corridor (Amtrak), Environment, global warming, high-speed rail, rail.


No sooner than I heard that inland temperatures were headed for triple digits, I’m sitting on the Capitol Corridor in Emeryville and the train is overrun with rugrats. Moms, dads, boys and girls are feverishly power-walking up and down the aisle looking for six seats together.

Summer’s arriving early, it seems.

One youngster, perhaps 9 or 10, insisted that he choose where to sit: “Car ONE,” he nearly shouted, as he dragged the hand of a thirty-something woman. “Car ONE!”

After riding the train for two years, I should know right away what that means, but I guessed correctly. He wanted to be in the car that had a view of the engine.

I knew this even before I asked a conductor, because this entreaty sparked a powerful memory from my childhood. I remembered riding a train, perhaps more than one, and being captivated by the sight of the locomotive at the front-end of the train. It so happens that this train is being pushed by its diesel-electric power plant, but doubt that the childhood attraction is much different than it was those six presidents ago.

It was probably a train in Germany. I don’t think we ever rode trains in the United States when I was little. But at the age of 7, I moved to what was then West Germany and trains became a big part of our summer vacations. I came to appreciate all forms of rail transport. In five years, I got to jump on open wooden trolleys, dodge electric-eye equipped streetcar doors and, as I began my teen-age years, ate and slept in compartments on overnight trips to Italy.

That affection for seeing locomotives, for appreciating the clunking of steel wheels working their way through series of switches, for the romance engendered by a train warming up on a dead-end platform got into my blood and remained there. I am a train person, and there’s no point in my pretending otherwise.

As a journalist, however, I have an obligation to suppress such passions and treat all modes of transportation coolly and objectively. It helps that I’m older and can chalk up such feelings to the innocence of childhood bahnfreude, but I know that’s simply denial after hearing that kid on the train today.

But I was the hard-bitten journalist when KQED Radio called me yesterday. They wanted me for Michael Krasny’s “Forum” program. At first, it was to fill the role of the high-speed rail opponent.

That I couldn’t be, I told them. While I’ve expressed a good deal of skepticism about public support for California’s $10 HSR billion bond measure on November’s ballot, I’ve never considered myself an opponent of the project. Maybe it was my ego, but I really wanted to talk about high-speed rail on the air, just not in that capacity. First of all, it’s unseemly for a reporter to take sides in that manner. Secondly, I don’t really oppose the measure to build 700 miles of 200-plus mph electric trains.

Apparently after trolling about for another candidate, the person organizing the show called me back and said they’d want me to come on and play the reporter-in-the-middle, and I gladly accepted.

I felt for the guy, trying to find someone who would go on record opposing such a noble project. For only $42 billion, it solves state’s airport and freeway overcrowding, it fights global warming and it doubles the economy and population of the San Joaquin Valley overnight.

There I go again. Statements like that get me into trouble, as they did on Krasny’s show this morning, with people like Judge Quentin Kopp, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority board. All those years of hearing the promises of government officials and seeing the actual results have made me, shall we say, sympathetic to the complaints of ordinary citizens that these kinds of projects rarely cost as little as estimated, get finished when scheduled or deliver the kind of performance as promised.

For a thorough reporting on Kopp’s radio triumph, check out Robert Cruickshank’s blog, on which we are regularly made to prostrate ourselves before the … wait, stop, it’s happening again…

Kopp made some comment to the effect that people who have followed the project should know better. I think he was referring to my comment about “mixed results” among existing high-speed rail systems in the world.

Although I didn’t get many words in edgewise – Kopp predictably dominated the show despite Krasny’s best efforts – I may have tempered my subsequent remarks to make it clear that I was neither friend nor foe of the project.

But $42 billion is a lot of money, and I felt it important to point that out at a time when teachers are being laid off, we’re running out of water and prisons are bursting at the seams. Their opponent (or “token” opponent, as Cruickshank calls him) from Southern California said as much, but he also acknowledged that there’s not much room for expanding airports or widening freeways, either.

Martin Engel (no, I’m not going to let this rest just yet) would have never let the project off so easy. Here’s a guy who turned down a chance to be on the show who has tirelessly compiled everything that is dubious about high-speed rail and knows it by heart. The $55 fares from San Francisco to LA, the cost estimates and the glowing ridership predictions, just let Martin have at them and you’ll be hard-pressed to prove him wrong (or right, for that matter).

One thing that Martin knows better than anyone, although we’ve never met face-to-face, is that my childhood fascination with trains hasn’t abated, and given the chance, I’d be one of high-speed rail’s best customers. I think my biggest problem with the enterprise, aside from its gargantuan cost, is that I’ll be eligible for retirement before it ever gets to Oakland or Sacramento, and even then current plans don’t show it going from Oakland to Sacramento.

But as I sit here watching the flat farmland of Solano County whiz by at 70 mph, I can dream, can’t I?

Photo of West German Bundesbahn from

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15 Responses to “high-speed rail through a child’s eyes”

  1. Robert Cruickshank Says:

    Tsk tsk – I didn’t see proper genuflection in this post! 😉

    Seriously, I agree that Martin should have taken up the challenge and confronted Kopp. Partly because hearing Kopp smack him down would have been good entertainment, but also because I think it is good for the project for the critics to have their say – and for the public to hear why those critics and their arguments are so very wrong.

    The cost estimate thing is not meaningful unless it is assessed in context – what are the costs of not building HSR? Everyone on yesterday’s show assumed it was $40 billion (or more) vs. $0. It’s not, and until we admit that we’re going to pay billions one way or the other, an accurate assessment of HSR’s financial merits will remain elusive.

    I actually thought you did well to finally mention $4 gas. I cannot believe people still doubt ridership projections now that it is crystal clear that cheap oil is over. Article after article, such as that recent one in the NYT, are finally catching on to Americans’ embrace of mass transit. I don’t think ridership is going to be an issue at all – and it only is to those who remain locked in a 20th century mindset.

    You know, I do very strongly agree that the HSR project ought to include an upgrade of the Oakland-to-Sac route. Turn the Capitol Corridor into something that goes 170mph instead of just 70. And I expect that will happen in a later phase of the project. At the same time, I can’t exactly feel bad for you guys – at least you have train service! We in Monterey look forlornly at our empty tracks and would kill for regular 70mph service to San Jose.

  2. Caroline Dalton Says:

    I just want to remind you, that children are not rug rats. These children are just the ones that would benefit from the transit plan, so please do not dismiss them so easily by using this kind of language about them.

  3. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Caroline, I didn’t mean to offend. I use the term just as it’s used on the popular cartoon show of the same name, as a term of endearment. In this case, it was meant to show the contrast with the passengers I’m used to seeing, which are adult commuters with briefcases and laptops. It was actually nice to see young children on the train, especially since they reminded me of my own childhood and how I saw the world back then.

  4. Capricious Commuter Says:

    And Robert, I appreciate your gracious acceptance of my utter humiliation :^p I don’t question that there are costs associated with not doing HSR, but here’s the way I look at such things. I could really help my commute if I bought a house in Rockridge, and I will pay a steep price for not doing so. But I CAN afford to pay that higher price over time, as stupid as it is to do so. On the other hand, I’m sure I’d never be able to get a loan for that house. As said on “Forum,” my reporting shows that the state can afford to borrow another $10 billion. My only doubts stem from the need to incur that debt for other purposes, satisfying more pressing needs and deriving more immediate benefits. Can we do it? Sure. Will we? I don’t know.

  5. Robert Cruickshank Says:

    I guess I don’t see a more pressing need than building an alternative to oil-based transit. California has many public policy needs – universal health care, education funding, etc – but taxes, not borrowing, are the proper way to address that. Bonds are best used for long-term infrastructure projects like HSR. When it comes to using that bond capacity I am hard pressed to think of a more pressing need than HSR.

    Sure, it won’t open immediately, but you have to start construction sometime. If we wait longer, it won’t be open until the ’20s, and by then we will likely be facing gas shortages or prices so high that most Californians cannot pay it, crippling our transportation system.

    So, again, it doesn’t seem like HSR is really being analyzed in context.

  6. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Robert, you are applying logic to an illogical system. Sure, taxes would be a more appropriate way to pay for heath care and education, but we haven’t reached the tipping point where two-thirds of the state’s voters/legislators would agree to raise taxes. And again, I appreciate your assessment that building an alternative mode of transportation to cars, jets, buses and low-speed rail is the most pressing infrastructure need that we have right now, but I still think the rest of the state will need more convincing and perhaps another dollar a gallon tacked on to the price of gas.

  7. miked Says:

    CC- Unless I am mistaken, it would only take 50.1% of the state’s voters to change the rules so that taxes could be raised or a budget could be passed without 2/3 of the legislature. I wouldn’t be surprised if something like reducing the threshold to 55% could pass, but I don’t expect to see that on the ballot anytime soon.

    On the main subject- that extra dollar per gallon will get there soon enough. The only thing that will push down gas prices is a willingness by consumers to buy less gas, and the only way to get that is with serious alternative forms of transportation that use different energy sources (like the electricity that will power HSR, which is made from Natural Gas, Uranium, Water, Wind, the Sun, and Coal that gets burned in other states, but not petrol).

  8. A former business manager Says:

    I haven’t followed the HSR debate in detail. But I have read with some interest the comparison of the proposed HSR project to those in Europe and in Asia.

    The one thing that stands out to me about those comparisons is that those other projects are essentially national projects supported by national governments or now by more than one national government working togather. The projects support key national goals with something close to national concensus about the projects’ importance.

    A long time ago, I had the chance to work in Japan for a while and of course rode the trains. I also had the chance to learn and think about the political history of the project. I remember that the key thing in a lot of peoples’ minds there was that the “Shinkansen” helped to knit togather the different regions of the country. This was likely the political goal in other countries as well. In Spain for instance.

    The political situation for HSR here in CA is obviously very different. There is no national concensus on the importance of passenger rail. So, there’s no national involvement. That means that the economic wherewithal of the Federal government doesn’t come into play very much, if at all, with HSR.

    I also don’t see any concensus amongst CA state political leader on the importance of HSR to CA. There are obviously some people who support it but a lot of support is lukewarm at best.

    And it isn’t clear what the political goal of having HSR in CA is.

    It isn’t enough for a project, particularly of this size, to make rational sense. It also has to make some political sense to make it important enough for political leaders to support it for the decades it will take to build the system.

  9. murphstahoe Says:

    California compares favorably as a “nation” compared to most countries you mention – in size, population, and economic power.

  10. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Yes, but it doesn’t compare at all in its ability to raise money for infrastructure. One thing this run-up and faltering in home prices might do is nudge some long-term residents out of their homes and into newly assessed property, where you have (more-or-less) to pay on what the home is worth in today’s dollars and market. It’s not my favorite kind of taxation, but the money’s got to come from somewhere. I’m proud to say that I’m paying taxes on an assessment that’s somewhat higher than my house is worth. Of course, it’s also possible that a lot of those people sold their houses and moved to Wyoming and are living off of their equity.

  11. A former business manager Says:

    CA’s population is about 35 million. Japan’s population is about 126 million. Germany is about 84 million. France is about 60 million. Spain is about 40 million.

    So CA is in the same league as only the smaller of those countries.

    But national governments have much greater power than any state or provincial government. CA isn’t comparable to countries in the scope and type of economic power a national government wields even though they might be the same size and even though CA might have a bigger economy.

  12. Robert Cruickshank Says:

    It may be the state of California that is taking the lead in planning this project, but the bulk of the funding – as much as $20 billion – will in fact come from the federal government. This year a standalone train bill is being proposed, with $14.4 billion for HSR. Next year we may see as much as $60 billion for HSR in the transportation bill, especially with a much bigger Democratic Congressional majority and if there’s a Democratic president.

    The thing to remember about Japan, Spain and France is that their national governments are much more powerful in domestic policy than the US federal government. For better or for worse, the US still hews to a federalist model, where US states have far more power over transportation policy than a Japanese prefecture or most Spanish regions (the autonomous communities such as Catalonia being exceptions).

    So here in CA, thanks to our political system, states have to take the lead on most transportation policies. But the feds WILL help, once we put in our $10 billion stake.

    As to convincing Californians, unleaded is now at $4 statewide and diesel is almost at $5…

  13. Capricious Commuter Says:

    I have no doubt that federal money is forthcoming, provided the state can start coughing up bond money. Your $20 billion is based on a lot of “ifs,” however. Just as in Sacramento, times are tough in Washington, no matter which party is in power.

    I agree that California has political power bordering on nationhood (emissions standards notwithstanding). But in our republic, the voters don’t have longstanding positive experience with rail travel. I’m sure that helped get HSR started in Spain, which is most like California in population and distances that need to be traveled.

  14. Reedman Says:

    I believe that people would vote for HSR if they thought the money would be spent in a prudent fashion. But history say that is not the case. The poster child for this is the Bay Bridge. $7 billion for an 8 mile bridge with no additional capacity over the existing one. Adjusted for inflation, the original bridge cost about $1.1 billion. China just completed the longest sea bridge in the world – 22 miles for $1.5 billion (BTW, the Chinese began construction on their bridge in 2003).

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