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.
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 www.locopage.net.