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San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2 hours and 38 minutes
January 27, 2012 10:41 AM   Subscribe

Does California need the high-speed rail project? The New York Times published six opinion pieces debating the merits of the $90 billion high-speed rail plan that would connect Los Angeles to San Francisco. Streetsblog has a summary of the six opinions.

Gov. Brown of California strongly supports the plan, stating “Critics of the high-speed rail project abound, as they often do when something of this magnitude is proposed,” adding: “The Panama Canal was for years thought to be impractical, and Benjamin Disraeli himself said of the Suez Canal, ‘Totally impossible to be carried out.’ The critics were wrong then, and they’re wrong now.”

President Obama's plan to bring bullet trains to the U.S. has been stymied by Republicans in Congress, but Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and even Ron Paul are on record for supporting the idea of an American high-speed rail network, though not necessarily this plan.

You can check out the current route map and plan a future trip on the project website.
posted by 2bucksplus (122 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
As a way to avoid flying to LA to visit family -- one of the reasons I haven't visited in 8 years -- I would ride high-speed rail SO HARD.

I took Amtrak home Christmas freshman year of college, lo these many years ago. Enjoyed it, but it took forever, and the last time I looked it was similar or higher cost as flying. Just converting one segment of my trip to a higher speed would be a huge bonus, plus I wouldn't have to drive from Olympia to SeaTac. (I could, no joke, take a bus 3 blocks from my house to the train station.)
posted by epersonae at 10:56 AM on January 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


yes
posted by Freen at 10:56 AM on January 27, 2012


again, absolutely, yes
posted by Freen at 10:57 AM on January 27, 2012


Yes, yes we do. And soon.
posted by Chuffy at 10:57 AM on January 27, 2012


High-speed rail only makes sense if it is combined with accessible, affordable and convenient local public transportation options. Taking a bullet train from a city you need a car in, to another city you need a car in, means that people will just decide to drive.

The Daily Dig: Is California's High Speed Rail Project Financially Feasible from the sadly now-defunct Infrastructurist.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:57 AM on January 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


The Earth needs California to have a high-speed rail project. Californians may benefit above and beyond that as well.
posted by DU at 10:58 AM on January 27, 2012 [10 favorites]


High-speed rail only makes sense if it is combined with accessible, affordable and convenient local public transportation options. Taking a bullet train from a city you need a car in, to another city you need a car in, means that people will just decide to drive.

Only one data point, but I regularly take the Amtrak from DC to Alamance County, NC, which probably has zero public transportation infrastructure; it's not a problem because people pick me up on the other end, which I imagine is true for many people in California as well.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 11:00 AM on January 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


High-speed rail only makes sense if it is combined with accessible, affordable and convenient local public transportation options.

I think this is an "if you build it, they will also build it" moment.
posted by gurple at 11:00 AM on January 27, 2012 [8 favorites]


the man of twists and turns: The same is true of airports, even though cost per passenger is far higher and passenger per hour throughput is far lower.
posted by Freen at 11:02 AM on January 27, 2012 [7 favorites]


Getting between San Jose and San Francisco on the peninsula has been, and will continue to be, a major sticking point for HSR. The only obvious route is over the Caltrain tracks and accompanying easements, but they will require major expansion to accommodate the high speed trains. These are some of the richest communities in the Bay Area, and acquiring that land is going to be both expensive and politically difficult.

Frankly I think they should just acknowledge that it will initially be a Sacramento-and-San-Jose to LA train, with potential expansion to SF at some future time. In the meantime they can just offer connections to Caltrain and BART at Diridon or something. Or maybe slow down the HSR trains in San Jose and send them up the Caltrain tracks as baby bullets, assuming the track gauge is compatible. At any rate, they shouldn't hold up the project overall because of the difficulties connecting that final 25 miles, because it's going to be tough.
posted by rkent at 11:02 AM on January 27, 2012 [16 favorites]


I think this is an "if you build it, they will also build it" moment.

A conservative Republican of my acquaintance once tried to tell me that electric cars wouldn't work because there aren't any places to recharge them. I asked why he had such poor faith in the free market building them to meet demand. He walked away.
posted by DU at 11:03 AM on January 27, 2012 [38 favorites]


Taking a bullet train from a city you need a car in, to another city you need a car in, means that people will just decide to drive.

Nope. If you fly, same results. Although your point is valid (on needing better transport between cities/internally), I'd much rather take a train than have to go through the nightmare that is flying.

SFO-LAX
Pack car, drive to airport/take a train, pay for parking or train tickets, go through security, fly, land, get a ride from airport to wherever. This takes at least 3 hours, probably closer to 5 if you're toting stuff and kids. At that point, you may as well drive. It's cheaper and you have transport in the next town.

If we had a bullet train, we'd be able to board and walk around/not be inconvenienced by takeoffs and landings, eat our own food, drink a beer...to me, a much better experience than either flying or driving.
posted by Chuffy at 11:04 AM on January 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


I think this is an "if you build it, they will also build it" moment.

Yes, but I approach it from the other way around. The local public transportation system would derive most of its ridership and revenue from local people, and would be built primarily to serve them. High-speed rail would funciton to link cities with an already-in-place system, because if a city doesn't have public transportation options then it becomes less likely that people will want to use high-speed rail.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:04 AM on January 27, 2012


LA needs more public transit infrastructure way more than it needs a high speed rail to SF.
posted by Jon_Evil at 11:07 AM on January 27, 2012 [8 favorites]


High-speed rail only makes sense if it is combined with accessible, affordable and convenient local public transportation options.

So, from San Francisco to Los Angeles, then.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 11:08 AM on January 27, 2012


The blurbs on the first page of the NYT 'debate' appear to show 4 solid NOs and 2 Maybes. And one of the NOs is encouraging moving the project to the East Coast. How totally New York Times of them.
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:13 AM on January 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


The same is true of airports, even though cost per passenger is far higher and passenger per hour throughput is far lower.

And we build new airports and expand old airports, and continue on the path we are on, even though airspace is becoming more crowded, some airports are reaching their maximums on landing and takeoff frequency, and are running out of room.

Inertia is a big problem with humans.

Really, I'm not arguing against high-speed rail. I wish my home state wasn't being such idiots about it. The proposals, to me, don't go far enough in creating better systems for people to travel.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:13 AM on January 27, 2012


which I imagine is true for many people in California as well.

All the special case people like yourself for whom this is actually a better option than driving can go ahead and split the $90,000,000,000 price tag then. I think you'll probably find the six or seven figure price tag to be high enough that you'd opt not to pay it and forego the train.

Everyone who needs to leave their car parked for $25/day at the train station while they pay $50/day to rent a car at their destination is better off just driving.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 11:13 AM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


High speed rail would be nice. But this plan is a disaster from start to finish. I voted for the original plan but that's not what we've got now. It's time to kill it and start with a blank sheet.
posted by Long Way To Go at 11:14 AM on January 27, 2012


Another point to note:

In most jurisdictions where HSR has been built, the economic impact on midsized cities between the main poles has been enormous and wholly positive. This is one of the huge differences between fast trains and airplanes - in transport-geek speak, the train articulates the points in between.

The best case in point is Spain, whose (seriously freakin' awesome) AVE network has revolutionized business and enhanced quality of life all along its length. The strongest case in point is Ciudad Real, a regional backwater before it became the first major stop on the Madrid-Seville line. Now, it has new residential communities for Madrid-bound commuters, and the local university and hospital and so forth attract top talent from Madrid because you can live in the city and commute out to Ciudad Real. Similar changes have started to occur along new AVE lines in cities like Segovia, Zaragoza and Lleida.

In the California case, cities like Fresno and Bakersfield would suddenly find themselves within the daily commuter sphere of both SF and LA. If it followed the Spanish model, entrepreneurs could (for example) start launching high-tech start-ups in Fresno, taking advantage of cheap rents near the station, and zipping into San Jose and San Fran for meetings as needed.

The overall economic impact of HSR, in other words, can't be measured by revenues calculated using projected ridership stats. HSR is, to properly employ an overused phrase, a paradigm shift.
posted by gompa at 11:15 AM on January 27, 2012 [24 favorites]


All the special case people like yourself for whom this is actually a better option than driving can go ahead and split the $90,000,000,000 price tag then. I think you'll probably find the six or seven figure price tag to be high enough that you'd opt not to pay it and forego the train.

Everyone who needs to leave their car parked for $25/day at the train station while they pay $50/day to rent a car at their destination is better off just driving.


How "special case" is it to be traveling to see people who have a car/have someone who will drop you off? This seems like a fairly common life circumstance to me; in that virtually everyone I know is in that position on a somewhat regular basis.

People fly between these two cities, don't they? Either people using the airport are already paying for parking and renting cars or there are people who have some sort of arrangement that means they don't have to and would probably work just as well if they were taking the train.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 11:19 AM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


After riding the Boltbus for $25 between DC and NYC a couple times, I'm more skeptical. The train is pleasant, but it's neither the cheapest nor the fastest option.

I'm skeptical that high-speed rail could be cheap (the estimated fare has reached >$100 even before the project has begun -- it's currently $97 for a low-speed trip between NYC and DC) and I'm only willing to claim it could be more convenient than air travel if the TSA agrees to keep its mitts off, forever.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 11:25 AM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Last weekend I was stranded 5 hours at SFO trying to get home to LA. I could have driven home in less time than it took to fly home. The airline tried to blame the weather, except that I heard some staff telling a passenger that it was actually due to mechanical failure.

Count me in as a "yes."

Also, any time they want to start on that bullet train to Vegas, let me know.
posted by luminarias at 11:28 AM on January 27, 2012


The plan, as it now stands, is way out of control. I've actually come around quite a bit and I think they do need HSR in California, but it's going to be really hard to get it from SF to LA. I'd like to see them start SJ to LA and the the real work is going to be connecting SF to SJ. Caltrain won't work (it'll take nearly as long to get between SF and SJ as it would to get SJ to LA!) but if they can do something to cut the SF to SJ time down then I think not only would HSR work but you'd also open up a lot of people to rail transport just along the local corridor.

The way it stands now, I don't think there's enough popcorn in the world to keep you fed watching the fight for it going through Atherton, Menlo Park (where I live, a 10 minutes walk from the station) and Palo Alto.
posted by marylynn at 11:28 AM on January 27, 2012 [7 favorites]


any time they want to start on that bullet train to Vegas, let me know.

The Republicans promised it.

Call it 261 miles, at bullet-train speeds, thats an hour each way. We can take the kids to Disneyland and spend the nights in Vegas! I'm in.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:32 AM on January 27, 2012


You know... I'm just impressed that the doomsday machine that is the Republican party hasn't argued against the train because creating such a project would make it a likely target for terrorists, thus increasing the need for TSA having authority over train stations thus making taking the train much like taking a flight thus negating the value of spending the money thus saying that the government is no place to run these sort of projects.
posted by Blue_Villain at 11:34 AM on January 27, 2012


If we had HSR between Calgary and Edmonton, I'd actually visit Edmonton.

Calgary is the biggest city in the world without scheduled (vs ultra-expensive Rockies tourist trains) inter-city rail. We have superb, most-successul-in-North-America urban LRT but we don't have any trains that I can take anywhere.

Wait you already have Amtrak? Could be worse.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 11:35 AM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


You need a car in San Francisco? Life has lied to me.
posted by loriginedumonde at 11:36 AM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]



High speed rail creates Socialism (europe) or Communism (China).

Keep America the way Jesus intended when he sent George Washington down Mount Rushmore with the 11 commandments : 1 car, 1 driver.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 11:37 AM on January 27, 2012 [10 favorites]


We're in the middle of a HSR debate in my neck of the woods, and a while back I read a thing that suggested that we scrap plans for rail and instead concentrate on building better intercity bus networks, which are more flexible and use existing infrastructure. I can see some real drawbacks (ie buses are less reliable because of traffic), and I think the author had his own agenda, but I'm curious about whether there's any validity to that argument. I know that a lot of cities are experimenting with bus rapid transit with dedicated bus lanes, because it's a lot cheaper than building rail networks.
posted by craichead at 11:37 AM on January 27, 2012


People fly between these two cities, don't they?

Business travelers who are going for one day and can expense the whole trip, solo travelers with disposable income, sure.

But most people drive. Especially when they're not going alone. Cost of gas for a 800 mile round trip for 1 person: ~$100.
Cost of an airline ticket on southwest for the same person: ~$150.

Ok, not that much more. And you save 3 hours or so. If you really don't need a car on either end, great.

Now for a family of four lets do some prices:
Gas: $100
Four airline tickets: $600.

And that person who was going to pick you up -- are they still picking you up (all four of you) now that you're staying in a hotel, because they don't have room for four guests? Are they really going to drive your whole family around the whole time, or are you going to rent a car?

Sure, there are people for who the train would make sense. But there are 37 million people in California, and most aren't in LA or SF. And most would find it easier and cheaper to drive. And most of those already own cars, so why not use them?
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 11:38 AM on January 27, 2012


I remember when 90 billion was a lot of money.

As someone born and raised in California, the country's highest populous state, yes!
posted by uraniumwilly at 11:39 AM on January 27, 2012


I WANT THIS SO HARD.

Of course I also wanted the subway expansion to actually make it west of the 405, because holy fuckballs does DRIVING past the 405 suck ass (especially due the bizarre change on wilshire that leads to everyone and their dog staying in a left turn lane until the last possible moment, and all the people being "nice" that enable that sort of jackassery), and that's not gonna happen either.

pout.
posted by flaterik at 11:40 AM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Some investor should pay to fly all members of Congress to Japan and put them on the shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka. Then they can vote.

Why can't we fucking lead for once? For all the jabberjawing about being #1 and "best in the world" and whatever, we don't lead anymore. We let everyone else get the good stuff then complain about how unfeasible and unaffordable it would be here without ever trying
posted by Riptor at 11:40 AM on January 27, 2012 [24 favorites]


Caltrain won't work (it'll take nearly as long to get between SF and SJ as it would to get SJ to LA!)

Not really, actually. The fastest bullets that currently run take 59 minutes from Diridon to 4th & King. If you strategically added some sidings and improved the track enough to increase the maximum speed by, say, 15%, you could certainly bring that down a few minutes and at a substantially lower monetary / political cost than trying to run a full HSR system up the peninsula.
posted by rkent at 11:41 AM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


ethnomethodologist: "Calgary is the biggest city in the world without scheduled (vs ultra-expensive Rockies tourist trains) inter-city rail."

20 years ago we had a dayliner that went back and forth. It was fantastic.

As soon as we get the Calgary-Edmonton HSR (doesn't need to be HS, just R) sorted out, we need one that goes to Banff as well.
posted by sneebler at 11:49 AM on January 27, 2012


"Frankly I think they should just acknowledge that it will initially be a Sacramento-and-San-Jose to LA train, with potential expansion to SF at some future time. In the meantime they can just offer connections to Caltrain and BART at Diridon or something. Or maybe slow down the HSR trains in San Jose and send them up the Caltrain tracks as baby bullets, assuming the track gauge is compatible. At any rate, they shouldn't hold up the project overall because of the difficulties connecting that final 25 miles, because it's going to be tough."

Unfortunately, by law, they can't. The voters passed a train from SF to LA that makes the trip in a certain amount of time. They can't build something else without breaking the law.
posted by crawl at 11:49 AM on January 27, 2012


the US rail division of German conglomerate Siemens AG announced that it had completed purchase of 20 acres of land adjacent to its existing 34-acre light-rail manufacturing plant in Sacramento, Calif. That new land would be the site for manufacturing high-speed-rail passenger trains traveling at up to 220 miles per hour.

I think I see the problem. Building the trains would be a lot easier if they were stationary.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 11:51 AM on January 27, 2012 [6 favorites]


High speed rail creates Socialism (europe) or Communism (China).

Japan disagrees.

Some investor should pay to fly all members of Congress to Japan and put them on the shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka. Then they can vote.

Even better, put them IN Tokyo, tell them they need to be in Osaka tomorrow. That is, not just give them a sightseeing ride, but let them see that it actually is really fucking convenient in normal situations.

Of course, in Japan, driving is really expensive too, which makes taking the shinkansen not seem like wasting a lot of money. In the US, budget-conscious people are still going to want to drive their cars.
posted by ctmf at 11:52 AM on January 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Also, sorry folks, but this shit is never going to get done.
posted by weinbot at 11:54 AM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Trains can carry a lot more people than airplanes at a lower cost. With air traffic congestion and flight delays increasing we can either build a high speed rail network now when interest rates and construction costs are low, or we can build it more expensively later.
posted by humanfont at 11:54 AM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


What? Don't tell me they're at it again?

Just kidding!
posted by sneebler at 11:56 AM on January 27, 2012


So, the route from Irvine to San Diego is by way of Ontario?
posted by malocchio at 11:57 AM on January 27, 2012


assuming the track gauge is compatible.

It's not the gauge of the track that would be a major stepping stone, assuming Caltrans learned its lesson with BART. The minimum radius of the turns, the consistency of the rails, the consistency of the sleepers and track ballast, the installation of the catenaries, installation of more overtaking spots (of which there is no room for along much of the route), extension and modification of station platforms, upgrading and preferably doing away with grade crossings and signals, upgrading the non-existent safety measures Caltrain currently takes to keep people from crossing the tracks on foot...

a low-speed trip between NYC and DC

We barely have a low-speed rail option. There is one daily train between the Bay Area and LA. It takes 12 hours, the schedule is not convenient in either direction, and it is notoriously behind schedule due to Union Pacific prioritizing their own traffic. It averages less than 40 miles per hour.
posted by clorox at 11:58 AM on January 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


As soon as we get the Calgary-Edmonton HSR (doesn't need to be HS, just R) sorted out, we need one that goes to Banff as well.

Both will probably happen in the next 20 years. There are long-term plans to build a commuter rail system going west, stopping in Bowness, Cochrane and Canmore, and Banff is just a bit futher out. (Personally I think making it more attractive to live in Cochrane and work in Calgary will only exacerbate sprawl).
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 12:00 PM on January 27, 2012


But there are 37 million people in California, and most aren't in LA or SF.

You have to start somewhere. You can't just spring a system into existence that serves all of the country instantaneously at once. That kind of thinking means we can never have nice things.

Are they really going to drive your whole family around the whole time, or are you going to rent a car?

Once local transit starts serving the stations, what would you need a car for? I know, it's not the way the country is... right now. We should change it. I didn't get it until I visited Japan for several months and didn't need a car a single time. And I got around. A lot. It was awesome.
posted by ctmf at 12:01 PM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's not the gauge of the track that would be a major stepping stone, assuming Caltrans learned its lesson with BART. The minimum radius of the turns, the consistency of the rails, the consistency of the sleepers and track ballast, the installation of the catenaries, installation of more overtaking spots (of which there is no room for along much of the route), extension and modification of station platforms, upgrading and preferably doing away with grade crossings and signals, upgrading the non-existent safety measures Caltrain currently takes to keep people from crossing the tracks on foot

I get where you're coming from, but wouldn't most of those be non-issues if they simply routed the HSR trains to the Caltrain tracks and ran them as if they were baby bullet trains? E.g. at 85 mph top speed, using the current sidings, etc. I know it's not ideal, but as opposed to tearing a new set of tracks through Mountain View, Atherton, and Palo Alto...?
posted by rkent at 12:05 PM on January 27, 2012


But there are 37 million people in California, and most aren't in LA or SF.

For the record, about 20 million of those 37 million live in either the LA Metro Area or the Bay Area, which is slightly more than half the people in California.
If you extended it down to San Diego, you'd add another 3 million, which is over 60 percent of the California population.

There are many arguments against high-speed rail, but "There isn't the population to support it" isn't one of them.
posted by madajb at 12:06 PM on January 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


The airline tried to blame the weather, except that I heard some staff telling a passenger that it was actually due to mechanical failure.

So these new trains won't have mechanical failures?
posted by smackfu at 12:11 PM on January 27, 2012


So, the route from Irvine to San Diego is by way of Ontario?

I assume you'd switch to existing Amtrak Surfliner at Irvine for San Diego.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:11 PM on January 27, 2012


"So these new trains won't have mechanical failures?"

They will, but you can just catch the one right behind it instead, for no "change ticket" fee, no losing your luggage, and you'll have a seat since the trains aren't overbooked.
posted by crawl at 12:13 PM on January 27, 2012


The current plan is absurd on numerous levels. The entire plan hinges on a windfall of federal or private money. The amount of money the Feds have committed to is far, far short of the amount needed, and it is staggeringly unlikely that they will be willing to commit the tens of billions more that are required. Private money will never materialize because the ridership neccesary to justify that type of investment is a pipe dream. That means that - if California proceeds with the current plan - it will spend billions to upgrade an Amtrak line between Bakerfield and Merced. The net result will be that the 1 million people that ride that line every year will get to their destination 45 minutes faster. This in a state that was weighing the merits of limiting doctors visits to once per year for MediCal recipients. Now if they revise the plan so that the first leg built is between LA and Anahiem so that should it be the case that magic money doesn't rain from the sky a useful piece of track it laid, maybe I'm okay with it. Maybe.
posted by vorpal bunny at 12:15 PM on January 27, 2012


I know that a lot of cities are experimenting with bus rapid transit with dedicated bus lanes, because it's a lot cheaper than building rail networks.

And because the bus, rubber, and oil companies like buses much better than trains.

So, the route from Irvine to San Diego is by way of Ontario?

It's through Oceanside on the Metrolink and Coaster. Like the way from SF to Sacramento is through Oakland on BART and the Capital Corridor.

I get where you're coming from, but wouldn't most of those be non-issues if they simply routed the HSR trains to the Caltrain tracks and ran them as if they were baby bullet trains?

I think it's possible that the new trains might not even be able to go at those speeds on that track at all, much less as part of the everyday route.
posted by clorox at 12:19 PM on January 27, 2012


They will, but you can just catch the one right behind it instead, for no "change ticket" fee, no losing your luggage, and you'll have a seat since the trains aren't overbooked.

Honestly, I think it's kind of funny how Amtrak changes from terrible to awesome as soon as the trains are high speed.
posted by smackfu at 12:20 PM on January 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Calgary is the biggest city in the world without scheduled (vs ultra-expensive Rockies tourist trains) inter-city rail.

I love ya, ethnomethodologist, and I think the fact that you can't take a regular passenger train to maybe the world's greatest pair of railway hotels (the Banff Springs and Chateau Lake Louise, of course) is a travesty, and I can't wait for Alberta's HSR line, either. But this statement isn't even remotely true.

Off the top of my head, Mexico City, Guadalajara, Bogota, Rio and Sao Paulo - pretty much all of urban South America, actually - are all larger urban centres with no inter-city rail service. Now, if we're talking developed world, there might be a case to be made, depending on whether or not you consider Amtrak's services outside the Northeast Corridor to be legitimate inter-city services.
posted by gompa at 12:22 PM on January 27, 2012


wouldn't most of those be non-issues if they simply routed the HSR trains to the Caltrain tracks and ran them as if they were baby bullet trains? E.g. at 85 mph top speed, using the current sidings, etc. I know it's not ideal, but as opposed to tearing a new set of tracks through Mountain View, Atherton, and Palo Alto...?

There's no way to meet the requirement that it be possible to run the distance in 2:38 if the trains run that slow through the Peninsula. (Not saying there will actually be trains running from SF to LA at 2:38, but it has to be feasible.) Slowing to 125 through the Peninsula is enough of a challenge as it is.

And even if that were possible, it's not really attractive. There are I think 44 grade crossings between SF and San Jose. If you just add a bunch of capacity to the existing system without addressing the grade crossings, the traffic backups of cars, bikes and people waiting to cross the tracks are going to be bigger than they are now.

The real problem on the Peninsula isn't High Speed Rail per se, it's dealing with the grade crossings. There's plenty of room in the existing right of way for extra tracks, but Federal Regulations won't allow trains running at 125 mph over grade crossings. Fixing the grade crossings should be done anyway for Caltrain, but they have over time picked off all the easy ones. The ones that are left are going to require some eminent domain, and that's not a popular thing.
posted by ambrosia at 12:23 PM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


The best case in point is Spain, whose (seriously freakin' awesome) AVE network has revolutionized business and enhanced quality of life all along its length. The strongest case in point is Ciudad Real, a regional backwater before it became the first major stop on the Madrid-Seville line. Now, it has new residential communities for Madrid-bound commuters, and the local university and hospital and so forth attract top talent from Madrid because you can live in the city and commute out to Ciudad Real. Similar changes have started to occur along new AVE lines in cities like Segovia, Zaragoza and Lleida

Sorry to pee on your parade, but Spain definitely isn't a model you want to follow. High-speed railway lines (together with other gold-plated infrastructure projects, like now-abandoned airports and empty highways) were built with abandon during the boom years mostly with three things in mind:

A) providing local politicians with high-profile projects to show-off;
B) feeding plenty of pork to building companies, which may or may not have returned such generosity under the table; and, not least
C) providing cover for outrageous real estate operations (aka "revolutionizing business") in those mid-sized cities you mention.

As a result, Spain has built an overpriced, overextended, and ridiculously underutilized high speed network. Last year, the Toledo-Cuenca-Albacete line, linking three towns that just reach half a million inhabitants between the three of them, was discontinued because of a serious lack of passengers. The trains carried, in average, 9 passengers. Not per journey. Per day.

I love high speed rail, but, seriously, Spain is not a good model. Take Japan or France. And, if you must take a lesson from Spain, is that the decision to build a line should be taken after hard-headed consideration of the economic facts. Building hundreds of miles of track and running empty trains at high speed over them is not just economically ruinous, it doesn't help the environment one little bit either.
posted by Skeptic at 12:23 PM on January 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


But there are 37 million people in California,

There are 11 million people in Belgium. They have four high speed lines. France has 68 million, and just shy of 1200 miles of high speed track on ten lines, with one being extended and two more under construction. Germany, 82 million, 7 high speed lines, two more under construction. Sweden has less than 10 million people, and almost every line runs at 200kph, and are being upgraded (signals and power, the track is ready) to 250kph. And so on.

Surely, connecting the two most populous cities in California with *one* line is feasible.
posted by eriko at 12:24 PM on January 27, 2012 [7 favorites]


Honestly, I think it's kind of funny how Amtrak changes from terrible to awesome as soon as the trains are high speed.

Well, Amtrak, despite its many problems, is already pretty awesome relative to a lot of the other options. I wish we had Amtrak in Canada.

Also, yes, when you improve something, it can get better!
posted by ssg at 12:29 PM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think Jerry Brown's continued backing for this project in the face of all the naysaying and bad-faith undermining ('train to nowhere,' and the like) has singlehandedly justified his governorship for me. This is the kind of visionary project that California really needs, and the kind of project that is really hard to carry out in these Republican times.

In a couple of generations, Floridans and Texans will be kicking themselves for having wasted the chance to do something similar (thanks to small-minded politicians), while California (and I think especially the central valley cities who will be connected to the state's two population poles) will benefit enormously.

As for people who say that NIMBYism on the lower Peninsula (San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties) will kill this project, I can only say that San Mateo and Santa Clara sure wish they hadn't jumped off the BART (regional metro) train in the beginning, 30+ years ago. San Jose is only now going to get connected to SF and Oakland via BART, and its going to cost them a hell of a lot more than it would have if they had stuck with it in the 1960s, and moreover it's going to be a long time yet before they have enough downtown stations to make their BART connection actually useful.

San Mateo and Santa Clara screwed themselves out of BART out of shortsightedness back then, but California High Speed Rail is a statewide project and the state will use its full power of eminent domain to make this work; the stupid NIMBYs will just have to suck it up this time.

The idea that I will be able to go just about anywhere in the state via bullet train, and skip the increasingly unbearable airports, is so wonderful that I can't believe its going to take a generation to actually build it. And I do go on about it, don't I?
posted by jackbrown at 12:29 PM on January 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


FYI I can pick up a car tomorrow from LAX for $31.37 for the day. If I stretch it out to a week it dives down to $18.65/day.

$50/day for car rental? Maybe if you're a sucker that hires it from the rental car counter inside the hotel.
posted by Talez at 12:30 PM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Honestly, I think it's kind of funny how Amtrak changes from terrible to awesome as soon as the trains are high speed.

Why shouldn't it, considering that my biggest problem with Amtrak is their utter failure to get anywhere on time? I love trains. But about half the time I've ridden Amtrak, I've had multi-hour delays for no discernable reason. A train system that gets me where I want to be in a reasonable amount of time = awesome! A train system that gets me where I want to be maybe in a reasonable amount of time or maybe in a reasonable amount of time plus 4 or 5 hours = terrible!
posted by Jeanne at 12:32 PM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Re: Bus Rapid Transit
And because the bus, rubber, and oil companies like buses much better than trains.
Whereas trains make themselves and run on sunlight?

I've mostly heard about bus rapid transit from these people, and it kind of makes sense to me.
posted by craichead at 12:33 PM on January 27, 2012


@ambrosia: you are absolutely right; it is the grade crossings on the Peninsula that really matter for this project; I had not realized there were so many on the Caltrain lines!

But as you say, the solution is going to be some aggressive use of eminent domain.
posted by jackbrown at 12:36 PM on January 27, 2012


Honestly, I think it's kind of funny how Amtrak changes from terrible to awesome as soon as the trains are high speed.

but that's exactly true! Amtrak *is* awesome, if you can deal with its lackadaisical pace, infrequent service, and inconvenient timetables. If you took the same experience and ran it faster, it'd be the best thing going.
posted by Mars Saxman at 12:37 PM on January 27, 2012


I wouldn't call it "awesome", but Amtrak on the Northeast corridor, where it owns its own tracks and doesn't have to yield to freight carriers, is pretty good, and far superior to air travel.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 12:41 PM on January 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


we scrap plans for rail and instead concentrate on building better intercity bus networks

And these buses operate at 200mph?
posted by kersplunk at 12:45 PM on January 27, 2012


Surely, connecting the two most populous cities in California with *one* line is feasible.

Well, I don't really think the difficulty of putting in new train lines scales according to the populations, but rather the distance, and the distance is pretty far compared to European standards.
posted by smackfu at 12:48 PM on January 27, 2012


So, the route from Irvine to San Diego is by way of Ontario?

I assume you'd switch to existing Amtrak Surfliner at Irvine for San Diego.


Nope. The route from SD to LA would be inland through Escondido and IE. I suspect if the current Surfliner speed trains are still in operation then, a San Diegan that wanted to go to SF would probably take the Surfliner or Coaster to Irvine and then the high speed to get there faster than all those stops on version that goes up I15. But if you live in Escondido getting dumped off in downtown San Diego won't help you much.

The train people explained the existing rail between OC and SD is pretty crowded and would need to be redone completely to get any sort of speed higher than the current Surfliner/Coaster speeds. A lot of people would not be happy if the train was elevated (to allow higher speeds w/o the risk of all those car crossings) and blocking the ocean views and eco-damage. There's not really enough right-of-way to add to existing tracks. And the Coastal Commission wouldn't be a fan.

Since I live in downtown San Diego, the idea of hopping on the Trolley to the Santa Fe station and catching the train to San Francisco and I was bummed I'd have to go to the IE before Los Angeles and it seemed out of the way. But a lot of San Diego County's population is along the 15 and those cities in Riverside and San Bernardino counties are where a lot of people live. So it sort of makes sense to take that route if you consider the HST being more than just LA-SF fast.

I really want to see high speed rail work in California. I understand why they want to build the sections in the middle of nowhere now because it will be easier and help people in the urban areas accept it. But even if it means it will cost more and seem slower, it seems to me that building out from LA and the Bay Area areas and eventually meeting in the middle would make more sense.

We need to build this now so it is done when we really need it. When gas is $10/gal having a ground based fast way to get around the state will be welcomed. But what we'll probably get instead is a better option in buses for inter-city travel. But the busses won't go fast.

Honestly, I think it's kind of funny how Amtrak changes from terrible to awesome as soon as the trains are high speed.

Amtrak is great in Southern California and would be awesome if it was high speed. The problem is the damn train can't get higher than 60mph because of all of the crossings (and stops) and it has to share the tracks with regional commuter rail and at night freight. There are frequent trains (and also the Coaster depending on where you need to go) and it pretty reliable. Even when I'm stopped i a siding I don't mind because there's a hell of a view.
posted by birdherder at 12:59 PM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think it's fair to say the Acela is awesome. If I'm going anywhere DC to Boston, it's a lot more comfortable and convenient than flying, and I can take the metro across the street from my apartment to a stop at any airport along the way and pick up a car, or meet someone anywhere. If I wasn't looking to move west, it'd mean I could basically live anywhere that was convenient to a local metro system and be anywhere served by Acela directly, and from there, all of the big cities and their airports. It would be nice awesome for CA if the same could be said of most of the state. I think the smaller hubs in between would grow in the same way neighborhoods in cities do when they get metro/subway/T stations.
posted by feloniousmonk at 1:01 PM on January 27, 2012


I think Jerry Brown's continued backing for this project in the face of all the naysaying and bad-faith undermining ('train to nowhere,' and the like) has singlehandedly justified his governorship for me. This is the kind of visionary project that California really needs, and the kind of project that is really hard to carry out in these Republican times.

While it might be hella fun, getting to stick it in Republican's eyes is a crappy reason to support hsr.

But as you say, the solution is going to be some aggressive use of eminent domain.

Aggressive use of eminent domain sounds like a great way to create Republicans where there were few before.
posted by 2N2222 at 1:04 PM on January 27, 2012


Speaking as someone living in far NorCal who wouldn't even be serviced at all by the proposed HSR line, I'm for it. Hell, I'm for it at the twice cost. At ANY cost. We need more rail and less highways. And you, dearie, you need to get over your car.
posted by entropicamericana at 1:10 PM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


North San Diego built a rail line specifically with greater high speed (and regular speed) rail connections in mind. I'm talking about the Sprinter. I will also note that the Sprinter is a project of the local transit authority (NCTD) and it connects neatly with buses and other forms of public transportation; it's pretty well done and would much more highly utilized if it connected to the full span of California beyond Union Station (which is pretty much where it stops being convenient to take the train from SoCal up north).

We've connected downtown SD through the Coaster or Amtrak (coastal) and then SD city through the Trolley, we've connected northerm SD County through the Sprinter to the coast and its links, and then Oceanside has the Amtrak/Metrolink/bus connection. All of these add up to much more public rail transportation than has been the norm. You're still missing a lot of the people who don't live on the coast, of course, but I would think that HSR connecting the patchwork of SD/OC/IE/LA stuff to the greater north would be an impetus to greater interest in rail all around.
posted by librarylis at 1:11 PM on January 27, 2012


You know, I'm the kind of liberal who should love this HSR project. And I like it in theory, because I like cool technology, dislike the bad influence of the automobile, etc., etc. But unfortunately, the devil is in the details. And the details speak strongly against this particular project - which is no reflection on HSR elsewhere. The California HSR project is an utter mess, from unrealistic requirements and budget, to the sad fact that it just doesn't make sense given the economic reality. Maybe this would have worked 30 years ago, but that ship has sailed (weak pun intended).

I travel LA - SF very often. Always take the car. It's the most economical, especially when you have more than one person going. The marginal extra cost of gas with additional people in the car is negligible - and even when gas prices go up, we'll get an electric car eventually, no? And yet you'd have to purchase a train ticket for every single person - that right there kills it. Plus you want to discuss the romance of train travel etc.? Sorry, but I got that beat by car - I take the 1 every chance I get (when not in a hurry), and it's some of the most beautiful coastline in the world, and I can stop pretty much anywhere along the way, in many of the nature preserves and parks along the way, or just for a spot of sight-seeing or scenic view. Try to match that with a train.

But getting back to economics. The train ticket - which is a total loser compared to a car - is not going to be competitive to an airline ticket either, not by a long shot.

I would take that money and expand airport capacity and infrastructure, or build another highway SF-LA. Sorry, maybe not as environmentally friendly, but economically a no-brainer. Because what good is an environmentally friendly HSR (if we even grant this), when it makes no economic sense? It will be a giant white elephant, perpetually unable to pay for itself. Meanwhile we'd have wasted unimaginable amounts of money building it, and then operating it.

Sorry, but this is a total loser. And a pity too, because I so wanted to love it. Shut it down before spending more money - and next time do some basic economic studies before launching into pie in the sky projects.
posted by VikingSword at 1:12 PM on January 27, 2012


The price of building hsr lines is bloated in the us, even compared to usually more expensive Europe...environmental regs, labor rules that the construction companies and unions both love, land and business owners having more bargaining power in right of way negotiations, and bidding favoritism, among others. There'd be more political support if construction costs could be brought down.

That said I'm moderately supportive of lines like this, helped by the fact that at the moment raw material costs are pretty low and there's a real need for public works projects.
posted by aerotive at 1:12 PM on January 27, 2012


> The Earth needs California to have a high-speed rail project.

The Earth needs people to be satisfied where they are. (Or dissatisfied but tough shit, just as good.) Here's hoping the long-threatened end of oil has that result.
posted by jfuller at 1:15 PM on January 27, 2012


I think it's fair to say the Acela is awesome.
I'm sure it is. It's also really expensive. I believe that DC to New York is about $200 round trip. For a family of four, it's still vastly cheaper to drive. At Acela prices, I don't think the train is going to replace driving.

Old-school Amtrak costs about half what the Acela does, and I much prefer it to either driving or flying. But it's less awesome than the Acela. In fact, a lot of people I know think that it's less awesome than the Bolt bus.
posted by craichead at 1:18 PM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


As someone who doesn't live in CA and therefore don't pay taxes, I think it's a great idea! I suppose if I were a 1% my personal benefit would be a lot less then the value I get out if, but that's probably not true for most Californians.
posted by delmoi at 1:19 PM on January 27, 2012


Yeah, you don't really see many families on the Acela, but pretty much every single train I've been on was sold out anyway. There are many ways to travel in the area the Acela serves, and there are definitely still roads for driving.
posted by feloniousmonk at 1:28 PM on January 27, 2012


Yeah, you don't really see many families on the Acela, but pretty much every single train I've been on was sold out anyway. There are many ways to travel in the area the Acela serves, and there are definitely still roads for driving.
Ok, but making things even more awesome for rich people is not a very high fiscal priority for me. You're going to have to sell this some other way, because I just don't care that much that you find a particular luxury item awesome. Can we make a significant environmental impact with a transportation option that is only attractive to people who don't care about cost? Is it possible that the money would make a bigger environmental impact if it were spent in some other way?
posted by craichead at 1:37 PM on January 27, 2012


All of the arguments against HSR that are based on "it's cheaper to drive" make no sense to me, as, while we can't predict the future with 100% accuracy, a few things are extremely likely:

1. Gas will be much, much, much, much more expensive.
2. There will be many, many, many, many more people who want to live an CA and move around.

Never underestimate the pure NIMBYism of the peninsula folks, though. If it dies, they'll have killed it. And Google is busy building self-driving cars instead ...
posted by feckless at 1:39 PM on January 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


There's also the auto-train, which is a train that holds cars. You park your car on the train, and then have it when you get off the train.

Amtrak has this on the East Coast. And in Europe the Chunnel trains take cars. It's ideal for the SF/SJ/LA route, because then you get the convenience of your own car in LA, along with skipping that awful drive.

I've talked to French people who commute via TGV, and it opens up a whole area outside of Paris to jobs in the center, and vice versa.
posted by wuwei at 1:41 PM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


smackfu: "Well, I don't really think the difficulty of putting in new train lines scales according to the populations, but rather the distance, and the distance is pretty far compared to European standards."
Wot? LA to SF is about 600 km, according to Google. London to Marseille is over 1200 km, and they also had to build this petite 50+ km channel on the way.

I can also walk the couple hundred metres down to the local train station tomorrow evening, take a regional train into Cologne (30 minutes) and be in Moscow Monday morning. That's 2400 km of non-HSR, but most of the trip through Germany would be on high speed tracks.

I find it quite funny that in USA, railroads have apparently become a big mystery that nobody can figure out how to do properly.
posted by brokkr at 1:42 PM on January 27, 2012 [15 favorites]


The Acela is kind of the worst spokes-train for HSR, since it's much more expensive and not much faster at all. So it only makes sense for business people and the well off.
posted by smackfu at 1:43 PM on January 27, 2012


I find it quite funny that in USA, railroads have apparently become a big mystery that nobody can figure out how to do properly.

No mystery. I'm pretty sure the answer on both sides of the Atlantic is to spend a lot of money on it. And then spend some more.
posted by smackfu at 1:46 PM on January 27, 2012


I've mostly heard about bus rapid transit from these people, and it kind of makes sense to me.

Sure it does, because half of their board of directors sells the things you need to get your very own brand-new BRT system (along with the rest of the infrastructure your developing country needs!), and the other half loans you money so you can buy it. They're going to make sure they're convincing.
posted by clorox at 1:49 PM on January 27, 2012


If you're at all interested in rail of any sort in the US, HSR or otherwise, and the history behind things that seem otherwise mystifying, I totally recommend Waiting on a Train.

The biggest issue, as I remember it, is that the freight companies own most of the track in the US. They're required (?) to let Amtrak use it, but not in an efficient or timely manner or anything, or to upgrade it to the volumes/speed needed for quality passenger rail.
posted by epersonae at 1:49 PM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think the real benefit is that it makes the whole area smaller. It's a commuter train, basically. I'm moving to CA to start a company, and if I can base it somewhere further south of SF than I could before because there's an easy way to get there via convenient and fast rail from anywhere from SF to LA, that'd make a big difference, to myself and anyone else looking to do to the same. That's going to start reviving smaller towns along the route as clusters of new companies emerge near them. I understand the opposition to something on a personal level, and I am not going to say this plan is perfect or even necessarily feasible, but these sorts of investments in the future are necessary at some point if we want to have one, so if not this regional high speed rail plan, then another one needs to be devised.

Also, Acela is definitely not a great example as far as the logistics of running such a service go. Blame CSX or whoever owns the tracks these days for the bulk of this. A dedicated system would be cheaper to operate and could run a lot faster. It's not something you do for speed as much as the ability to work for all but the 5 minutes it takes you to board.
posted by feloniousmonk at 1:52 PM on January 27, 2012


It was so disappointing returning to the US from Japan, where we were able to take trains everywhere. We absolutely need more investment in public infrastructure.
posted by univac at 1:53 PM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Uh, by "something on a personal level" I really meant to write "something you might not need yourself." Not sure what happened there.
posted by feloniousmonk at 1:55 PM on January 27, 2012


Once local transit starts serving the stations, what would you need a car for? I know, it's not the way the country is... right now. We should change it. I didn't get it until I visited Japan for several months and didn't need a car a single time. And I got around. A lot. It was awesome.

I agree. We should do this first -- make useful local transit. Then once each city is navigable without a car, link them together with a train.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 1:58 PM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


This thread makes me believe that America will collapse in my lifetime, because there's no way the right thing can be done when people are out to protect what they have at all costs from change, and when people are out to squeeze every last dollar of power from change too.
posted by ZeusHumms at 2:01 PM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sure it does, because half of their board of directors sells the things you need to get your very own brand-new BRT system (along with the rest of the infrastructure your developing country needs!), and the other half loans you money so you can buy it.
Again, you seem to be under the somewhat bizarre impression that trains fund, build and run themselves. How do these magical trains work?

(I'm assuming, too, that you're counting on no one actually clicking through to see that you're being disingenuous about the makeup of the World Resources Institute's Board.)

I'm all for better intercity transit, although I'll be honest and admit that intracity transit is a much, much bigger issue in my life. But I feel like HSR is new and high-tech and shiny, and it's much sexier than options that would be a lot easier and faster to implement. I mean, everyone here is all passionate about HSR, but nobody ever talks about reviving the boring low-speed rail service that used to exist between my city and the bigger city 30 miles away. That would take really minimal investment and could be done really quickly, but it's not on the table at all. And I think if we start with the small, more-local stuff, it will be easier to build good will for the flashy projects like HSR.
posted by craichead at 2:02 PM on January 27, 2012


We should do this first -- make useful local transit. Then once each city is navigable without a car, link them together with a train.

Why can't we do both at the same time? SF is already navigable without a car, even if there is always room for improvement.

Waiting until LA is navigable without a car is just another way of killing the project.

All those people who currently fly between LA and SF don't bring cars with them, and they manage. People arriving on the train will have the same alternatives people arriving by plane do.
posted by ambrosia at 2:04 PM on January 27, 2012


There's also the auto-train, which is a train that holds cars.

I've taken this several times, from the Sanford, FL terminus to the Lorton, VA terminus. It would be like building a train system from Ojai to Modesto - that is, only serving people with cars.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 2:09 PM on January 27, 2012


I've taken the Autotrain myself. It's definitely a weird experience. It would be nice if they had maybe 4 of them: 2 north-south, one on each coast, and 2 east-west, one north and one south.
posted by feloniousmonk at 2:13 PM on January 27, 2012


The auto train idea is also really interesting in combination with electric cars for longer-distance trips.
posted by feloniousmonk at 2:20 PM on January 27, 2012


smackfu: "No mystery. I'm pretty sure the answer on both sides of the Atlantic is to spend a lot of money on it. And then spend some more."
High Speed 1 (2007): 67 miles from St Pancras (London) to the Channel Tunnel portal at Folkestone @ 5.8 billion GBP = 9.1 billion USD → 136 million USD/mile
Cologne-Frankfurt HSR (2002): 110 miles @ 6.0 billion EUR = 7.9 billion USD → 72 million USD/mile
Nuremberg-Munich HSR (2006): 106 miles @ 3.6 billion EUR = 4.7 billion USD → 44 million USD/mile
LGV Méditerranée (2001): 134 miles @ 3.8 billion EUR = 5.0 billion USD → 37 million USD/mile
Proposed SF-LA HSR: 90 billion USD for some 400 miles → ~225 million USD/mile.

I know these are subject to exchange rates, but it seems to be between 2 to 6 times as expensive to build HSR in the US compared to Europe.
posted by brokkr at 2:24 PM on January 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


I know trains need to be financed, manufactured, and maintained. I know that when you trace it back to the source, they usually don't run on clean energy. I want people to click on that link, and to read the bios, and to look up the companies they don't know about (I hadn't heard of most of them).

I'm still trying to sort out my thoughts on the matter, so I'm sorry if this is a bit disjointed. I'm a bit of a public-transit geek. And BRT has been pushed for a while now as a sort of wonder cure for everything from traffic jams to pollution to deserted shopping districts, from downtown to the suburbs. Or at least that's how it's being perceived, which is worrying because then it will disappoint, and make people that much less likely to support public transit as a whole.
posted by clorox at 2:35 PM on January 27, 2012


I am very excited about this, although I have heard that plans have been scaled back so as to not include the Willamette Valley. Which would be a huge bummer.

Although of course, the Repuclicans, to the extent that they care that I live or die, want me in my car.
posted by Danf at 2:44 PM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


High-speed rail only makes sense if it is combined with accessible, affordable and convenient local public transportation options. Taking a bullet train from a city you need a car in, to another city you need a car in, means that people will just decide to drive.

I've flown a hundred times between Vegas, San Diego, Burbank, and San Francisco. So have most people from those cities who travel.

Drive times are long and unpredictable. Fly times are short and only semi-unpredictable. Trains are both fast and predictable.

I think if we start with the small, more-local stuff, it will be easier to build good will for the flashy projects like HSR.

There are many, many cities where the 'local stuff' will never happen. Vegas is one. There's too much money being thrown at politicians from cab companies for them to bother thinking about better solutions (witness the Vegas monorail: hahahaha!!!!)
posted by coolguymichael at 2:52 PM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I probably shouldn't comment, but...

...based on the proposed lines, I'd be able to drive four miles to work, park in my company parking garage in Los Angeles for free, walk to the train station (which is the same distance from my work as the local airport is, by the way), get on a train, and be in my company's San Francisco office at the same time as if I'd flown. Except, of course, that I didn't have to be there two hours early for the flight, so I get to sleep two hours later, and work two hours later before my return, making the travel day much, much more effective. Also, I hate to fly, I'm a very nervous flyer, so I'd be calmer when I got to work in the remote office.

Versus driving, my car wouldn't get the extra mileage on it, which saves me money, and since it takes six hours to zip up there, I would have to incur a hotel charge as well.

It gets different when taking my family up there -- the cost per person would drop a lot for the car, plus having it in San Fran would be nice -- but that's still twelve hours in the car with kids versus three on the train, and safer. Versus flying, I wouldn't have to convince my daughter (who, like me, hates to fly) to get on the train without screaming and crying.

So, um, I'm for this. It would only be better if it could somehow be a monorail.
posted by davejay at 2:55 PM on January 27, 2012


The biggest issue, as I remember it, is that the freight companies own most of the track in the US. They're required (?) to let Amtrak use it, but not in an efficient or timely manner or anything, or to upgrade it to the volumes/speed needed for quality passenger rail.

Train companies are required to give "preference" to Amtrak trains.
However, the rules are vague enough that the freight companies (who do the dispatching) are able to play all sorts of games to keep their trains on time.
One of the most popular out West is to build freight trains that are too long for the available sidings, thus they are "unable" to let Amtrak by.

One of the best (and cheapest) things we could do in this country to improve rail travel would be to require UP and friends to give "priority" to Amtrak and then go out and spend some cash on building larger sidings in existing rights-of-way to allow them to accomplish it.
posted by madajb at 3:00 PM on January 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


People seem to be concentrating way too hard on some sort of hypothetical nuclear-family-with-2.5-kids that in my experience (on the East Coast) doesn't represent rail riders at all.

Oh sure, there are definitely people who take the family on vacation via Amtrak. But not many, and mostly only on the weekends. That's not really who you want to design the system around, because -- as many people have pointed out -- when the Cleavers want to haul the family around, they can just drive and it will probably be cheaper.

I take the Acela between DC and Philadelphia, or DC and New Haven, pretty much on a weekly basis. It's mostly business travelers and people traveling alone. Fair number of apparent college students. Even the regional trains are mostly not families, although there are more couples.

I've ridden on the DB ICE trains and the French TGV as well, and that was my impression of the weekday riders on both of them too. Some tourists, some people clearly going on vacation (which would be less in the US, since we get a lot less vacation than Europeans do), but mostly business travelers and commuters.

The intra-city commuting aspect of HSR is generally understated in US discussions, I suspect because it's hard for most people to envision because it's not something that they typically do. But with true HSR on the NE Corridor, you could live in Wilmington or Philadelphia and commute to downtown Washington with a shorter commute than some people living out in the Maryland or Virginia suburbs. You could live in Rhode Island and commute to NYC.

Rather than a sprawling car-dependent suburbia around a few major cities, you'd instead have a chain of smaller cities/towns, each with its own potentially-pedestrian-friendly downtown, at each stop along the line. It's not coincidental that the rail-based pre-automotive commuter corridors, such as Philadelphia's Main Line, sort of look like this -- that's potentially what you could get with HSR, except that the distances between and size of each city would be greater.

Discussions that concentrate on some hypothetical family of four taking their annual pilgrimage to Mickey miss out on this. Sure, it'd be nice if there was an HSR network for them to use instead of driving, but in terms of carbon emissions and passenger-miles that's not really where you get the benefits.
posted by Kadin2048 at 3:07 PM on January 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


Rather than a sprawling car-dependent suburbia around a few major cities, you'd instead have a chain of smaller cities/towns, each with its own potentially-pedestrian-friendly downtown, at each stop along the line. It's not coincidental that the rail-based pre-automotive commuter corridors, such as Philadelphia's Main Line, sort of look like this -- that's potentially what you could get with HSR, except that the distances between and size of each city would be greater.
Unless we find a way to significantly reduce the cost of HSR, I think this dreamy vision would really only apply to the very wealthy. And since the very wealthy are a small minority of all people and all commuters, I'm not sure it would significantly benefit anyone other than the rich people who can afford $100 a day train fare.
I'm a bit of a public-transit geek. And BRT has been pushed for a while now as a sort of wonder cure for everything from traffic jams to pollution to deserted shopping districts, from downtown to the suburbs. Or at least that's how it's being perceived, which is worrying because then it will disappoint, and make people that much less likely to support public transit as a whole.
That's interesting, because that's kind of how I feel about high speed rail. I feel like it's an incredibly expensive, high-risk proposition that addresses a pretty secondary transportation issue in the US. Our pressing issues have to do with transit within metropolitan areas. High-speed rail is useful in pretty limited circumstances (solo travelers going intermediate distances between big cities) and probably not-so-useful if you're doing something else (traveling in a group, don't live in a place that's convenient to a major train station, traveling a very long or short distance.) It's incredibly expensive and will have minimal environmental impact while serving a relatively-small number of people.

But mostly, when I don't ride my bike to work I use a really boring, old-fashioned intracity bus system. I live in a working-class neighborhood where people really rely on this system. And the transit authority just announced that they're raising fares and probably cutting service, which is a bummer, because people in my neighborhood can't afford the fare increase and service already sucks. (I missed my bus on Tuesday and had to wait around for an hour for the next one. Fun!) I'm worried that the service cuts are going to drive away middle-class users, which will make the bus system even more vulnerable than it already is. I'm worried that my neighbors will be seriously hurt by the fare increase. (I can handle it, but I'm definitely one of the better-off people in my neighborhood.)

And given the way that the US massively neglects the transit services that already exist and that people rely on, it annoys me that we're focusing so much energy and attention on introducing a shiny, flashy, super-expensive new system that seems like it is going to benefit mostly the most elite members of society and that probably won't have a huge environmental impact anyway.

If HSR were being proposed as part of a comprehensive transportation policy, I'd be less skeptical, I think.
posted by craichead at 3:29 PM on January 27, 2012


I take the Acela between DC and Philadelphia, or DC and New Haven, pretty much on a weekly basis. It's mostly business travelers and people traveling alone. Fair number of apparent college students. Even the regional trains are mostly not families, although there are more couples.

I've ridden on the DB ICE trains and the French TGV as well, and that was my impression of the weekday riders on both of them too. Some tourists, some people clearly going on vacation (which would be less in the US, since we get a lot less vacation than Europeans do), but mostly business travelers and commuters.


This has been my impression as well. HST "steals" customers from airlines' very lucrative business customer market. Most of the flights between the LA and SF area airports are businesspeople during the week and more touristy on the weekends.

Even in Europe HST is a more expensive travel option. You're paying a premium to get from point A to point B. So it is mostly business people and better off people that if that train didn't exist would be on an airplane. Unlike the US, Europe does have a great slow train infrastructure for cheaper travel.

If the project is built on schedule you won't be able to go from Los Angeles to San Francisco until 2033. Unless my rock and roll lifestyle calls me home to Jesus first, I'll be getting a senior citizen discount for my ticket.

In the 1990s there was a private group wanting to build a HST system in Texas linking San Antonio (a stop in Austin), Dallas and Houston. It never got anywhere because gas was cheap and Southwest, American Airlines and Continental (all based in Texas operating the short flights between these cities and didn't want the competition). Had that been built back then, it would be coming online now.

I liken this project to be similar to the Interstate Highway System. People thought that was too expensive and didn't want to pay for something they weren't going to use.
posted by birdherder at 3:40 PM on January 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


The Acela is kind of the worst spokes-train for HSR, since it's much more expensive and not much faster at all.

Acela trains are busy, and the line itself is operating at 100% capacity in some sections. Until they expand, it's not possible for them to gain many more riders, so if they dropped their prices, they would just be leaving money on the table. It's a train that's so successful they can charge as much as airfare for it - even though it's nowhere near as fast as the proposed HSR in California (which, because it would be on purpose-built, modern tracks wouldn't have the same sort of capacity restraints).

Cars were really expensive back before they were available in high volumes, too.

I would take that money and expand airport capacity and infrastructure, or build another highway SF-LA. Sorry, maybe not as environmentally friendly, but economically a no-brainer.

The cost of building the California HSR is cheaper than the cost of building equivalent replacement infrastructure.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 3:42 PM on January 27, 2012


67 miles from St Pancras (London) to the Channel Tunnel portal

(Chortle) Funny how your cost/mile analysis stops at the entrance to the Chunnel. Because I'll guaran-damn-tee you that running tunnel boring machines under the English Channel cost a hell of a lot more than $136M/mile.

One of the most expensive, if not THE most expensive, segment of the HSR project is Los Angeles to Bakersfield. Many people forget that LA is surrounded by mountains. And tunneling through mountains is ungodly expensive.
posted by hwyengr at 3:52 PM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I feel like it's an incredibly expensive, high-risk proposition that addresses a pretty secondary transportation issue in the US. Our pressing issues have to do with transit within metropolitan areas.

I agree that transit within metropolitan areas is a major issue. But airport capacity, and the cost of fuel, is not a trifle. Something on the order of 300 flights take off each day between the Bay Area and the LA Basin. If you've ever been on one of those flights you'll know that the place spends maybe ten minutes at cruising altitude before beginning it's descent. It's a scramble for the cabin crew to get everyone their little glass of soda before ordering everyone to shut off their laptops. It takes an enormous amount of fuel to put a plane five or six miles up in the sky; short-haul flights are enormously fuel-inefficient. As fuel costs rise (and the price of oil will go back up as the economy improves) the price of a plane ticket will too. If a lot of the people flying between SF and LA could take the train instead (and I daresay a lot of them would, I certainly will) that frees up capacity at the airport for longer haul flights, saving us some of the costs and the inevitable fighting around airport expansion.
posted by ambrosia at 3:53 PM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


hwyengr: "(Chortle) Funny how your cost/mile analysis stops at the entrance to the Chunnel. Because I'll guaran-damn-tee you that running tunnel boring machines under the English Channel cost a hell of a lot more than $136M/mile.

One of the most expensive, if not THE most expensive, segment of the HSR project is Los Angeles to Bakersfield. Many people forget that LA is surrounded by mountains. And tunneling through mountains is ungodly expensive.
"
Do you think there are no mountains in France or Germany? Between Nuremberg and Munich you'll find 27 km of tunnel - that's about one sixth of the entire line underground.

Of course it's … a bit more expensive tunnelling under the English Channel. One of the major risks there was flooding (as e.g. happened when drilling the Great Belt fixed link in Denmark). Do you expect major flooding to be a risk when drilling through to San Joaquin Valley?
posted by brokkr at 4:17 PM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Do you expect major flooding to be a risk when drilling through to San Joaquin Valley?

Yes.

You seem dismissive about it, but you do realize that the mountain range in question sits on the boundary between the Pacific and North American plates ([cough]San Andreas Fault[cough]), and therefore will likely have quite difficult geological issues to overcome?
posted by hwyengr at 4:36 PM on January 27, 2012


I wish we had Amtrak in Canada.

No you don't. We have VIA Rail, which except for the fact that it does not serve Calgary and Regina, is better in every way. I rode Amtrak/VIA from New York to Toronto. Between NYC and Niagara Falls, the train was understaffed, there were a total of 2 hours of delay, and there were numerous slow zones. After Niagara Falls, the VIA crew, which was twice the size, took over, and we went a constant speed, probably 160 km/h, the rest of the way.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 4:38 PM on January 27, 2012


Sure, VIA is fine between Niagara Falls and Quebec. I used to love riding from Montreal to Ottawa. But VIA is pretty much useless once you leave that corridor and very expensive to boot.
posted by ssg at 5:30 PM on January 27, 2012


Sure, VIA is fine between Niagara Falls and Quebec

The line from Victoria to Nanaimo is great too. And the line to Churchill is still the only way there over land.

VIA is pretty much useless once you leave that corridor and very expensive to boot.

Amtrak is like that too. All the routes that cross the west are just as slow and infrequent as ours.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 5:54 PM on January 27, 2012


Amtrak Empire Builder at least runs every day. VIA only runs three times a week Toronto-Vancouver. Not even close to comparable.
posted by ssg at 6:22 PM on January 27, 2012


I thought we we going to set up a high speed bus system between cities instead.
posted by dibblda at 6:34 PM on January 27, 2012


90 billion, you say?

Here on the East Coast, we're about to spend 7 billion dollars on one bridge.

That's right: one bridge (the Tappan Zee Bridge if you're curious.)

So for 13 of these bridges you could have HSR from LA to SF?

Sounds good to me.

Want more comparisons? A state of the art cloverleaf will set you back 500 million. So, 180 cloverleafs for one HSR line.

I like.
posted by ocschwar at 6:48 PM on January 27, 2012


"
Everyone who needs to leave their car parked for $25/day at the train station while they pay $50/day to rent a car at their destination is better off just driving.
"

When I fly, my car doesn't fly with me.
posted by ocschwar at 7:03 PM on January 27, 2012


All the people who say we need better intracity transit first clearly do not actually live in SF. I haven't had a car in Oakland since I moved here 4 years ago. I freelance and commute on various transit agencies every single day to different locations throughout the entire Bay Area, from San Jose to Marin. My clients frequently tell me that one of the reasons they hire me is because (unlike some of my colleagues who usually drive) I am never late.

If this rail line existed tomorrow I would be on the first train out, ready to extend my business into LA.

Gas is not going to get cheaper and flying is not going to get easier. People have loudly protested every single transit development since the interstate highway system was first proposed. The one thing that has redeemed Jerry Brown for me is his willingness to see the bigger picture on HSR.

There's also the auto-train, which is a train that holds cars.

It seems the biggest obstacle to investing in infrastructure like this is that most people just can't imagine a world where they don't take their car everywhere.
posted by bradbane at 8:08 PM on January 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Needs is a very cute way of framing the topic. Because when you get down to it, we don't have one now, and the sky has't fallen. So clearly we don't need it.

But that's missing the point.

We're talking about building the future, or if we looked around at other countries, catching up. Modern countries have these amenities. Like running water, a sewer system, trash collection, and these days, the internet. Because just as I will be judged if I say I can't live without the Internet, not everyone is sold on public transportation.

It's a shame, because there's really two discussions taking place on the New York Times piece. One of "do we need trains at all? or even traveling?", which I take as a given, but not everybody does. There's an intermixed discussion actually debating the merits of the proposed plan, but until the first question is answered, resoundingly, that we must have high speed trains, then I am rabidly in favor of high speed rail, without studying actual implementation details.
posted by fragmede at 10:02 PM on January 27, 2012


Modern countries have these amenities. Like running water, a sewer system, trash collection, and these days, the internet.
Ok, but I would add to that "decent educational systems," and California is currently doing everything in its power to gut its educational system at the primary, secondary and tertiary level. There's plenty of stuff that we in the US should have but don't, or that we have but are currently in danger of losing. Is high-speed rail really the most pressing one of those needs, at at a time when the budgets for pretty much everything else are being slashed?
posted by craichead at 8:20 AM on January 28, 2012


I don't disagree with you about the education thing, craichead, but infrastructure and education are two completely different buckets, funded different ways. If we don't build high speed rail, there will inevitably be projects to widen the 405, or highway 99, or 101, or all of the above and add a runway or a terminal at SFO/OAK/BUR/whatever. And when those projects come up, will people say "but what about education???" People won't. Because it's just one lane here or there and they aren't thinking about the big picture.

We have to think about what it will cost to build, and what it will cost not to build. California is going to continue to grow. If our infrastructure doesn't adapt and grow to meet the needs of Californians, we are going to regret it. The Golden Gate Bridge was mocked as a horrendous boondoggle, people said "do we really need it? Ferries work just fine." I can't imagine living in the Bay Area without it.
posted by ambrosia at 2:49 PM on January 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


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