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Davis signs $9.95 billion bond bill to boost high-speed rail
September 19, 2002 3:31 PM   Subscribe

Davis signs $9.95 billion bond bill to boost high-speed rail
"Gov. Gray Davis signed a $9.95 billion bond measure Thursday that would clear the way for a high-speed rail system linking California's major cities."
this may be the first step in getting a decent rail-system going in the states. what do folks think about high-speed rail in general, do you think acela's recent problems are indicative of what we have to look forward to?
do those of you who have direct experience with existing high-speed rail systems have insights about the kind of obstacles this project might run into? will it revolutionize travel in the united states, or turn into a massive boondoggle?
posted by dolface (34 comments total)

 
God, I would LOVE high-speed rail to come to the states. It would get more people off the road so I wouldn't have such a bad drive to work.
posted by stupidcomputernickname at 3:43 PM on September 19, 2002


The government's going to be running it? Massive boondoggle.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 3:43 PM on September 19, 2002


Why does it have to be high-speed? What's wrong with a railroad like the Long Island Railroad or New Jersey Transit which just offers good coverage, decent reliability, reasonable rates, and a viable alternative to highways? On a state-wide or regional basis?
posted by Mo Nickels at 3:43 PM on September 19, 2002


Acela's problems were not because of lack of use. It's problems were also easily and quickly solved, seeing as they are putting the trains back in service. I remember waiting for the system to go online when I lived in New Haven... then I left and returned to Los Angeles, where I miss the city-to-city train system (when you live in New Haven and New York is 2 hours away by rail... you take it every chance you get).

It's about time, is all I can say. I'll vote for it when the time comes. Expanding freeways? No. Improving them with that fancy auto-driving system, which requires everyone to get a new car or a significant upgrade to their existing one, would be the only way to improve California's already extensive freeway system. I see no reason why both these systems can work together to improve traffic.
posted by linux at 3:44 PM on September 19, 2002



Lyle Lanley: Well, sir, there's nothing on earth
Like a genuine,
Bona fide,
Electrified,
Six-car
Monorail!
What'd I say?

Ned Flanders: Monorail!

Lyle Lanley: What's it called?

Patty+Selma: Monorail!

Lyle Lanley: That's right! Monorail!

posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:49 PM on September 19, 2002


If it's anything like Los Angeles' subway system, it should be a dream come true.
posted by waxpancake at 3:53 PM on September 19, 2002


I think SUVs should be specifically taxed to pay for it. Bravo.
posted by ParisParamus at 3:56 PM on September 19, 2002


It's about damned time. Right now, a 21st Century "Transcontinental Express" probably would not be very economical, but it would be wonderful to see several strong "corridor" rail systems be put into use. The California, Pacific Northwest, New England, Atlantic, and perhaps even Minneapolis-Chicago-Cleveland, etc. would be good.

And remember-just because it is government does *not* mean it will be a boondongle. If I am not mistaken, with the exception of England, the other European rail systems are all government run. Perfect? Far from it-but since the British rail system was de-regulated several years ago is has been nothing but (literally) a disaster.

Many of the Acela problems also stem from the fact that the "new trains" (which are actually based on older generation Euro highspeed rail systems) are placed on track systems that have not been updated.

Now, imagine the potential benefits of a *proper* high speed rail system: As a traveler now, you must arrive at the airport a good 45-60 minutes before the flight leaves in order to park, get in, arranged, go through security, et al. Board the plane, wait another 45 minutes for takeoff, fly, land, another 45 minutes to get out of the airport. Total time (besides flying) about 3 hours. This is especially horrid for "puddle jump" flights of 1-2 hours. With the rail system, arrive 5 minutes before the train leaves, board, start working on what you have, travel, depart and go where you need. Brilliant.

Having lived across Western Europe for the better part of 6 years now, I can attest to the fact that the rail systems there function (for the most part) as far more efficient transportation options than aircraft.

Christ-that just came across like one heluva rant. Sorry to anyone who read my blather.
posted by tgrundke at 4:00 PM on September 19, 2002


I second the SUV tax. Burn the witch!
posted by tgrundke at 4:01 PM on September 19, 2002


Most of the money, $9 billion, would help pay for the first leg of the system, which would connect Los Angeles, Bakersfield, Fresno and San Francisco.

This is great news. Really excellent. I've gone back and forth from SF to LA quite a few times, driving, flying and, um, training. Although I vastly prefer the train, it's often cheaper to fly, and certainly faster. For a rail line to work between the Bay Area and LA, it needs to a) cost less than $50 a ticket and b) deliver passengers in less than three hours.
posted by emptyage at 4:04 PM on September 19, 2002


With the rail system, arrive 5 minutes before the train leaves, board, start working on what you have, travel, depart and go where you need. Brilliant.

Having traveled twice on the TGV in France last month, I can attest to how fast (up to 180 mph), simple, and efficient high speed rail can be. I don't know how the French in general perceive it, but the friends over there we talked with about it could not recommend it enough. In fact, it's run on such a precise schedule that you almost don't have enough time to get on the train with your luggage before it departs. That was my only complaint.

Why does it have to be high speed?

Why wouldn't you want it to be? I think it's really the only way rail can compete with air travel over moderate to long distances.
posted by pitchblende at 4:11 PM on September 19, 2002


Having lived in both Japan and Germany where I traveled extensively via high-speed rail, all I can say is that it's about damn time! I still think that Davis is a dickweed tho'.
posted by MrBaliHai at 4:16 PM on September 19, 2002


This bond is a great idea. People who say $10 billion is too much money should consider the countless billions spent on roads so far.

Assuming they can get people to use the new lines, moving a person by rail consumes far fewer resources than doing it by air, bus or car, so it's the smart thing to do economically. The problem so far has often been that it hasn't always been economical for the rail company due to the way incentives were set up. But using less resources to transport a person a certain distance over a certain time makes society as a whole richer. It's all about how you set up the rail company and drive consumer adoption.
posted by Triplanetary at 4:43 PM on September 19, 2002


Don't give Davis credit for this (all he did was sign it, after all!). Give the credit to retiring California State Senator Jim Costa, a gentleman and a credit to this house.
posted by luriete at 4:45 PM on September 19, 2002


I say "this house" as I work for the Senate. Didn't mean to be obtuse.
posted by luriete at 4:46 PM on September 19, 2002


With the rail system, arrive 5 minutes before the train leaves, board, start working on what you have, travel, depart and go where you need. Brilliant.

That is until the first terrorist attack forces all rail passengers to endure the same kind of security inspections now found at airports.
posted by netbros at 4:49 PM on September 19, 2002


Linking LA and SF via high-speed rail sounds great. The stops in Bakersfield and Fresno make the project smell of boondoggle. Since the bond issue was brought up by a legislator from Fresno, there will probably be some silly rule about not having express trains between LA & SF.

When first moved the Texas, there was talk of high speed rail connecting Dallas/Houston/SA/Austin. Sounded like a great idea since I-35 gets way too much traffic.

Rumor is Southwest Airlines and American helped kill it since it would cut into their key markets. SWA and AA have a big piece of the business between LA and SF. I'm sure they aren't thrilled about this.
posted by birdherder at 4:55 PM on September 19, 2002


That is until the first terrorist attack forces all rail passengers to endure the same kind of security inspections now found at airports.

You are far more likely to survive a train wreck than a plane crash, and terrorists trying to crash trains into skyscrapers seems like a risk we can live with. I think it's a mistake to view every new project through the terrorism lens, just because we had an attack recently. The risk of getting killed in traffic is still several magnitudes greater than getting killed by terrorists.
posted by Triplanetary at 4:59 PM on September 19, 2002


And remember-just because it is government does *not* mean it will be a boondongle.
Just that it probably will be!
posted by thirteen at 5:20 PM on September 19, 2002


I think it's a mistake to view every new project through the terrorism lens

I don't disagree. I don't think we should hamstring progress based upon terrorism fear. That said, I just think that arriving five minutes before departure likely won't last because a high speed train could be an attractive target simply because of that high speed. You don't have to blow it up to create major havoc ... just derail it.
posted by netbros at 5:53 PM on September 19, 2002


The problem with high speed rail as an alternative to driving (as opposed to flying) is that, when you get to the destination, you haven't got a freakin' car.* Doesn't do me a whole lotta good. Plus, I can't take my guitar, my dogs, or my guns. I'll stick with driving, thanks.

*This was an especially acute problem before my 25th birthday when, despite the fact that I got paid to drive a $65,000 truck with $40,000 worth of cargo, I couldn't rent an $8,000 metro.
posted by stet at 6:20 PM on September 19, 2002


Quoth birdherder
Linking LA and SF via high-speed rail sounds great. The stops in Bakersfield and Fresno make the project smell of boondoggle. Since the bond issue was brought up by a legislator from Fresno, there will probably be some silly rule about not having express trains between LA & SF.

Yeah, I thought about this too, and then I thought about the locations of Fresno and Bakersfield and their surrounding geology. Running the line through the Central Valley is an ideal place to site a high speed train: it is flat, and the land is relatively cheap. But once you get into SF, what do you do? Stop at Oakland like it is done now or use existing, slower tracks to bring you up the peninsula? Like stet I want to walk to a station in SF and board a train, then get dropped off in the middle of LA [wherever that is]. I'm sure it is figured out, but it would be great to go from LA to SF without changing trains, or riding an extended metro [BART...uuug] a la London to Paris.

Tangentially, using Bakersfield and/or Fresno as a "Gordian Knot" much like Lille, France which is emerging as the transportation hub of west Europe. For those non-Continentals, Lille is in the north of France and almost precisely equidistant from Paris, London and Brussels. It is now conceivable to live in Lille and commute to London in less time than to commute from the western suburbs of London. What happens at Lille is the passenger and freight hub that literally has sprung up overnight. A location on a map that spoke to no natural geographical, geological and political bounds - merely a point where three arcs sprung from London, Paris and Brussels. quite remarkable, actually.

While I have no illusions that Bakersfield or Fresno will become a Lille, I applaud this step toward rational people movement.
posted by plemeljr at 6:27 PM on September 19, 2002


eh, the acela express claims to be "high speed," yet it takes six and a half hours to go four hundred miles (for $330). and the normal amtrak train takes eight hours to traverse the same 400 miles (for $212). ooh, mommy, i'm simply speeding along at 50 - 70 mph. whoopee. i think i'll hop the us airways shuttle instead - at $150 to $200, it's still expensive, but it's cheaper than the train and even including wait-time at the airport, i still get there inside 3.5 hours. why waste time and money on amtrak?

trains make sense for short hops like san fran-sacramento, or boston-new york. unfortunately, over longer distances, it proves to be both cheaper and faster to fly. that same $330 and 6.5 hours to take the acela from boston to dc could just as easily get me from boston to san francisco.

if we do ever get true high-speed rail in the northeast (boston-dc in 3.5 hours; boston-new york in two), and they price it to be competitive with the airlines (or better yet, to match emptyage's pricing - yes, i know the sf-la corridor is cheaper, but a girl can dream), it'll be a miracle. and then, i would take the train.
posted by ursamajor at 6:43 PM on September 19, 2002


It would be nice if ACELA was true high-speed like the TGV, so that New York-Boston would be ~2hours, but the problem is that unlike the TGV, most of the ACELA's run is through fairly densely-populated areas, not farmland. I'm not familiar enough to know how it will be in California, but the same problem will be confronted.
posted by ParisParamus at 6:52 PM on September 19, 2002


Personally, I think it would make more sense to run the train's route like Portland's Airport MAX -- up the median of freeways. Wouldn't work inside of cities, but it would allow the 'new'
construction of 'real' high-speed lines -- on land the state or federal government already owns.
posted by SpecialK at 7:07 PM on September 19, 2002


The greatest problem that AMTRAK has, and Acela in particular, is that the American rail system never "elevated itself". By this I mean that our railroads cut through cities, roads, streets...literally. You'll notice in Europe, especially England, Belgium, Denmark, and England-this is not an issue. These are extremely densely populated locales, but the rail systems go under or above. Not through.

It is horrifically expensive to build a proper rail system, and the big problem for the US is the tendency for our population to shift geographies. This is not such a big issue in Europe. But once that infrastructure is built, it's damned good. I say go for it, Uncle Sam! Support something other than the oil industry for once...
posted by tgrundke at 7:23 PM on September 19, 2002


I happen to think that California is a viable corridor for high-speed service. And whatever one says about Acela and the Boston-New York-Washington corridor, at least (by most accounts) it's making money for Amtrak (excluding those pesky capital costs, at least).

Europeans -- and some admiring Americans -- have to realize that on balance, Europe is roughly a magnitude of ten more densely populated than America is. The largest region that's even approximating European conditions is the Northeast Corridor, and if you're a bit more flexible, stretching west to Detroit and Chicago, and then specific isolated regions like California (with a biiiiiig gap in the middle) and Texas and Florida, both of which have on-and-off high-speed proposals. tgrundke's points about elevation are terribly important for high-speed rail, because of the enormous numbers of grade crossings (>250K in the US; accidents every 90 mins) . We've had bad accidents with trains going 70mph. Even for Acela, there is only one real section -- in Rhode Island, I'm told -- where it can reach its highest operational speeds (which are considerably less than what it's capable of doing).

Amtrak did one thing right with Acela: the contract was designed to give the US/Canadian manufacturer Bombardier technology transfer from Europe, so that a North American supplier would have the knowledge to build high-speed trainsets. Simply importing European-built trainsets with proven technology wasn't possible, because Amtrak operates on heavy rail lines shared with freight trains, and the US has stricter safety regulations than Europe about the strength of passenger cars -- which increased the weight, and made newly designed wheelsets necessary. It's been a little rocky, but in general has worked well.

Still, tgrundke, if you look at the New York and Chicago areas, you certainly see rail on multiple levels. Look at Manhattan's High Line, or the Loop streets that are elevated a story above the Amtrak lines -- and a story below some of Metra's. Or consider Atlanta's Underground, because the downtown was elevated over a narrow river valley -- and the rail lines that passed through it.
posted by dhartung at 10:27 PM on September 19, 2002


The reason why the French have such a world beating rail system is that they were prepared to invest in it from the word go. They realised that a High Speed Train needs high speed tracks and built them. Britain on the other hand, tried to design tilting trains that could go faster on existing tracks but just ended up making passengers seasick.

Space is certainly a consideration, France has roughly the same population spread over 2.5 times as much land as Britain so there is more room for carving High Speed Routes through countryside. Britain is catching up however. I think building a high speed link like this in California would be a great boon for the rail industry worldwide and would raise the profile of rail travel in the car-mad US.
posted by jontyjago at 12:57 AM on September 20, 2002


My question to those people who think this will be a massive boondoggle, do you think the Interstate Highway System is a massive boondoggle? That was created by the federal government also.

I think High Speed Rail will work great anywhere linking major cities like SD-LA-SF, the northeast, Chicago and other midwest cities, Florida, Texas, etc.
posted by LinemanBear at 6:39 AM on September 20, 2002


One more thing, plemeljr: The siting of Lille that you describe is quite reminiscent of an old analog factory-siting mechanism (it has a name, which I've forgotten, and googling failed me -- ah, wait, here's something, yes, a Varignon frame). Say you have a resource A, a resource B, and a delivery site C. Draw a map of the region on a plywood board. Drill holes at A, B, and C. Place a coaster on the board that has three strings tied to it, and drop the strings through the holes. Now attach weights to the strings representing the relative cost of transport between A, B, and C. The weights will pull on the coaster relative to each other, the system seeks collective equilibrium, and the coaster will end up at the most economically efficient site for the factory.

In fact, many American cities owe their history less to local conditions than to such lucky crossroads locations. The phenomenon can be seen today as expressways are built through empty rural areas and first a gas station, then a convenience store, then a fast-food restaurant spring up at the interchanges.
posted by dhartung at 10:59 AM on September 20, 2002


"...do you think the Interstate Highway System is a massive boondoggle? That was created by the federal government also."

Ah, but one shining success in a sea of sewage does not a valid analogy make.

For a more accurate comparison, one must look to the cluster-fuck that is Amtrak.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 12:36 PM on September 20, 2002


I think the interstate highway system is one of the most massive boondoggles in history.
posted by ramakrishna at 10:06 PM on September 20, 2002


I think the interstate highway system is one of the most massive boondoggles in history.
posted by ramakrishna at 10:06 PM PST on September 20


I will second that one.
posted by thirteen at 12:48 PM on September 24, 2002


Why would you describe Amtrak as a massive boondoggle Mr. Crash Davis? It consumes far less federal resources annually than the highway system, pollutes less, and causes far few deaths. In fact, the only boondoggle part of it is the ridiculous requirement that it keep running a transcontinental system rather than concentrating on the corridors.

The Eisenhower Interstate System on the other hand pollutes extensively, massively disrupts local ecosystems, and causes more fatalities yearly than any other government sponsored public works program I can think off. It has also had the social effect of disrupting naturally occuring patterns of residence, commerce, and industry.

(well, ok, alot of this is hyperbole, but I do think Amtrak tends to get a bad rap. I think it does an exceedingly good job for operating under severly constrained and oft criticized circumstances.)
posted by pjgulliver at 1:08 PM on September 24, 2002


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