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High Speed Trains in California
June 14, 2009 7:04 PM   Subscribe

Getting up to speed : "If it can get started, the California high-speed train would almost certainly be the most expensive single infrastructure project in United States history. Judging by the experiences of Japan and France, both of which have mature high-speed rail systems, it would end the expansion of regional airline traffic as in-state travelers increasingly ride the fast trains. And it would surely slow the growth of highway traffic."
posted by dhruva (77 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm excited by the mere prospect that we could have useful long distance mass transit. However I'm sure that there's top researchers working around the clock on new and innovative ways to make this project a complete failure.
posted by aubilenon at 7:11 PM on June 14, 2009 [18 favorites]


The more I think about it the more I think we should make Caltrain a first-class train operation first so we'll have some institutional excellence to build on. Having been spoiled on the Japanese system, right now Caltrain (and VTA light rail) reminds me of how the USPS would do passenger rail -- suckily.

This top-down Manhattan Project-scale idea has disastrous boondoggle written all over it.

The longest I ever rode the shinkansen in one go in Japan was Tokyo to Nagoya, 220 miles, ~2.5 hours. LA to SF via Fresno will be twice that distance and not at all competitive with SWA in terms of time & money, even counting the TSA bullshit.

The rail system would make some sense if the Central Valley were to become a conurbanation with 3X the population.
posted by @troy at 7:16 PM on June 14, 2009 [5 favorites]


I'm excited by this, because I hope that there will be renewed interest in trains in Mexico. Far fetched, I know. But here the buses compete with the planes, so I'm not too hopeful.
posted by dhruva at 7:23 PM on June 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


This, and a MagLev system.
posted by effluvia at 7:29 PM on June 14, 2009


I think Richie Rich McEntitlement here would positively drop dead from the indignity if he ever had to take a Greyhound.

(Seriously, Greyhound sucks though, take the Chinatown bus.)
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 7:31 PM on June 14, 2009


Ah, great article that really explains a lot of detail in an engaging framework.

No Mag-Lev, just fast, proven EuroTrain technology, plus a 2:40 LA -> SF requirement! This means one hour from San Jose to Fresno. Prolly cost $100 or more but still.

Gilroy -> Fresno -> Bakersfield -> LA are all ~120 miles apart.
posted by @troy at 7:39 PM on June 14, 2009


When I asked Schwarzenegger about the social effects of a rail line, he quickly replied, “I think people will look at the state and not just say, ‘Oh, my God, I have to go from the south to the north, what a schlep.’ ”

The thought of Arnold Schwarzenegger saying that has had me giggling for the last two minutes.

That out of the way, for all his numerous acts of lunacy he's spot-on about the downfall of American commuter rail. Forget 21st century; most of our rail system is stuck in the 19th, and it's like every state in America is waiting for another one to be a leader on changing that.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 7:45 PM on June 14, 2009


@troy: really? Not competitive at all? So let's say the train takes 3 hours (which is longer apparently than it is planned to be). I could take SWA out of SFO .. but that costs significantly more than San Jose. And it's more than an hour (if I catch a Caltrain bullet) to get to SJ for me. And I need to be at the airport an hour early (so the TSA tells me). The flight to LA takes .. 90 minutes? Bit less maybe. LAX isn't near downtown, so I'll need to take some transit to get there (or wherever I'm going).

If the HSR happens, it will be a 20 minute bus ride to it for me (I live in SF), then a less than three hour ride to *downtown* LA. Not LAX way the hell out in freeway hell. Downtown. Which is the only place public transit exists in LA anyway.

So the point is that HSR goes from city center to center. Airports of any size aren't generally speaking really in "city center". So the "travel time" using rail like this vs flying is very different even if, technically, the train would take longer than flying.

Plus, HSR gets dedicated tracks. Delays due to the equivalent of "air traffic control" just can't happen.
posted by R343L at 7:46 PM on June 14, 2009 [3 favorites]


I voted for Prop 1A. Here's hoping it gets the rest of the $30 billion it will be needing.

While we're on the topic of awesome things getting funded in California, how 'bout funding edumacation, MediCal, and state parks and such? It's pretty straight-forward, try it yourself (flash link).

"California educators, who expected that 2008 would be the "Year of Education" that Schwarzenegger promised last spring, are seething over his proposal to make what some called the deepest cuts to schools in California history." (Info on contacting your California representatives is at the bottom.)

posted by aniola at 7:50 PM on June 14, 2009


If it's a good idea, if it will serve the majority of the people, if it has a triple bottom line cost benefit, if it will operate will into the future, if a government is the decision maker - it hasn't a hope.
posted by mattoxic at 7:54 PM on June 14, 2009


I voted for Prop 1A. Here's hoping it gets the rest of the $30 billion it will be needing.

Hahaha. This thing will cost $100 billion dollars. I guarantee it. I'm not saying we shouldn't do it, but $30 billion is a pipe dream.

If the HSR happens, it will be a 20 minute bus ride to it for me (I live in SF), then a less than three hour ride to *downtown* LA. Not LAX way the hell out in freeway hell.Downtown. Which is the only place public transit exists in LA anyway.

Huh. First of all, public transit exists all over the place, not just in downtown. L.A., contrary to popular belief, has a lot of public transit. Most people don't actually use it, but that's not the same as it not existing.

Secondly, downtown is a wasteland. Why the heck would anyone want to go downtown unless they're seeing a Lakers game or maybe going to the philharmonic. It's actually easier to get a lot of places worth getting to from LAX than from downtown.
posted by Justinian at 7:58 PM on June 14, 2009


The West Coast seems unsuited to this. Too big.

Also, it is freight rail's ownership of the rights-of-way which is the biggest problem.

However, the corridor from DC to NY makes perfect sense. They already have a pretty good thing going. Indeed, they already have a decent speed train they use (Acela) to do this. But they can't get around freight rail, who owns all of the tracks and refuses to let Amtrak get in their way. I can understand their position, they own it, they built it, they run it, and there is no economic reason they should do this--it hurts them.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:59 PM on June 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


I just hope they can finish it in time for Leonard Nimoy to take the inaugural ride.
posted by briank at 8:00 PM on June 14, 2009 [5 favorites]


Well, sir, there's nothing on earth like a genuine, bona fide, electrified, six-car monorail!

What'd I say?
posted by milarepa at 8:07 PM on June 14, 2009 [9 favorites]


monorail

What's it called?
posted by sien at 8:11 PM on June 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


downtown is a wasteland. Why the heck would anyone want to go downtown unless they're seeing a Lakers game or maybe going to the philharmonic. It's actually easier to get a lot of places worth getting to from LAX than from downtown.

1) Downtown is not a wasteland - I lived Downtown 3 years ago, and it was just starting to get better - it's improved by leaps and bounds since then.
2) The eternal LA battle is Eastsiders vs. Westsiders. I suspect you are W based on your comment about getting anywhere worth going from LAX. I am E, so all my friends, preferred restaurants, and nightlife are much more convenient to Downtown. LA's a big place!

(I typed out a medium-sized rant, but I edited it down to inoffensive bullet points to avoid a.... massive derail)
posted by thedaniel at 8:24 PM on June 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Anecdote: I live in an eight-person household. We were all strangers before we moved in together a year ago (though admittedly we're all the sort to live in a place like ours). Five of them would have used a light-speed rail to head south at least once within the past 9 months (and four of them more than once). There's a lot of NorCal-SoCal travel. It would get used.

I couldn't find anything on the freight train problem on Google, but it is a problem! Does anyone know more about that and how it relates to CA high-speed rail?

I had to look up triple bottom line, but the auto industry doesn't meet that standard.
posted by aniola at 8:25 PM on June 14, 2009


(I typed out a medium-sized rant, but I edited it down to inoffensive bullet points to avoid a.... massive derail)

Good idea. Besides, I think we can all agree that the real enemy here is the Valley.
posted by Justinian at 8:34 PM on June 14, 2009


(I typed out a medium-sized rant, but I edited it down to inoffensive bullet points to avoid a.... massive derail)

nice pun
posted by mattoxic at 8:34 PM on June 14, 2009


Justinian, you're missing out on a lot if you think downtown is only good for the Staples Center and Disney Hall. Come to one of the downtown meetups and check it out!

And since I've lived both on the westside (4 yrs) and near downtown, I feel like I can say without prejudice that westside LA traffic sucks some major ass. Driving to the bay area from west LA tended to mean I spent the first hour of my trip stuck in traffic on the 405.

The idea of high speed rail sounds awesome, but if it's anything like the pricey Acela trains I could never afford on the east coast, then I'd probably be stuck driving anyway.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 8:41 PM on June 14, 2009


So let's say the train takes 3 hours

yeah, I was thinking the trains would go shinkansen speeds but apparently they're going to go super-shinkansen (TGV) speeds.

JetBlue flies in an hour for $100 between SFO and Long Beach, SWA is $150 between SFO and LAX.

A TGV can beat that, even if it as to go through Fresno. Not sure about the fares, but moving our infrastructure off petroleum this century is probably going to be a good thing, cost-wise.
posted by @troy at 8:42 PM on June 14, 2009


CA high-speed rail? Yes, please.
posted by zippy at 8:43 PM on June 14, 2009


America should have been investing in HSR for decades, just like it should have been investing in the infrastructure that is aged and collapsing, but we have not done so. These efforts, while worthy goals, take decades and cost orders of magnitude more than the numbers that were in the article. That said, the benefits (seen in Europe or Asia) are even larger than the costs. The bullet train in Japan was one of the key growth factors for Japan's rebirth after WWII- lowering costs of travel within Japan significantly and allowing Japan to be more competitive globally.

For HSR to be successful in the US long-term, there needs to be some kind of process/organization in place that will last beyond the 4-8 year term of a presidency. That there is even a debate about HSR tells me that a real future is probably not in the cards. Too many stakeholders would want to see HSR fail including the airline industry, the automobile industry, the petroleum industry, and numerous other deep-pocketed lobby groups.
posted by gen at 8:49 PM on June 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


The ring came off my pudding can.
posted by Ratio at 8:51 PM on June 14, 2009 [4 favorites]


Does anyone know more about that and how it relates to CA high-speed rail?

Not much of a problem since this is going to be new right of way.

But according to the article SP are being dicks, which isn't surprising if you know the history of California. What a give-away we gave to the railroads in the 19th century, and they still all went bankrupt.
posted by @troy at 8:52 PM on June 14, 2009


The idea of high speed rail sounds awesome, but if it's anything like the pricey Acela trains I could never afford on the east coast, then I'd probably be stuck driving anyway.

What makes the bullet train so popular in Japan is that all of the highways are fee-based. So you spend more money on tolls to go between major cities in Japan than you would spending it on a train ticket. The cost of the car, gas, insurance, parking, are all on top of that.

The other thing is that even if you take a train to another major city in Japan, the public transportation in that other place is much, much, much better than just about any city in the US. That's what I mean about how this is a really-long-term effort. Who will ride HSR is built if the rest of the public transportation stays in the car-centric model that is America of today. You can get to your city of choice via HSR but then you're stuck at the train station? Not a solution.
posted by gen at 8:57 PM on June 14, 2009


I see a bit of an issue with the central valley being massively flood prone. And when I say "a bit of an issue" I mean, how the hell are they going to build this thing so it runs in the winter without making the tracks 10' above the surrounding land the entire way from Tracy to Bakersfield? High speed trains can only run high speed on very well maintained and inspected tracks that aren't, for example, underwater at various points.
posted by fshgrl at 9:01 PM on June 14, 2009


Affordable, dependable, fast public transport? I like it.

The first time I took the fast ferry from Juneau to Haines, I couldn't stop saying "Wow, two hours!" Now, if only the city bus got me to the ferry station. And if the ferry didn't drop you off two miles outside of Haines. We do have a long way to go.
posted by Foam Pants at 9:06 PM on June 14, 2009


If it can get started, the California high-speed train would almost certainly be the most expensive single infrastructure project in United States history.

Well, they'd better get on it. They have what, about 50 days left?
posted by c13 at 9:13 PM on June 14, 2009


That "if it can get started" -- what a big if. Especially in the current economic climate in California. The state is falling apart. The article says that "several members of the rail authority [said] that they doubted budget shortfalls would have any near-term impact" on the high-speed rail project. I love the idea of a fast train from LA to SF as much as anybody, but these people are hallucinating if they really "doubt" that the budget crisis won't have an impact on their plans. The so-called "budget shortfalls" are now to the tune of $24.3 billion and climbing every day. And without a budget solution, the state will run out of cash by July 28.
posted by blucevalo at 9:21 PM on June 14, 2009


And since I've lived both on the westside (4 yrs) and near downtown, I feel like I can say without prejudice that westside LA traffic sucks some major ass. Driving to the bay area from west LA tended to mean I spent the first hour of my trip stuck in traffic on the 405.

I usually drive over to 101N. I avoid 405 at all costs. I do love the westside, but the traffic situation is not one of the, uh, major selling points.

Still, I just can't take this high speed rail thing seriously. We don't have any money. None. We're sitting on a massive budget shortfall. How the heck are we supposed to pay for this? We can't even get a budget passed; 60% of the people and state congress refuse to cut significant spending and 40% of the people and state congress refuse to raise significant revenue. And you need 66% to raise revenue, so we're screwed.

I would be thrilled with high speed rail to SF and Sacrament and, heck, Las Vegas and San Diego. It would be incredibly awesome. How are we going to come up with $30 billion much less the true cost which will be much higher than that?

How about we balance the budget and then get some high speed rail?
posted by Justinian at 9:24 PM on June 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


The West Coast seems unsuited to this. Too big.

I disagree. I live where distances between towns and cities are measured in hours of driving. Supplementing some of those routes with high speed rail would be a wonderful thing, good for people and good for the environment.

Sure, it's a total given that passenger rail out here (ignoring key corridors like LA to SF) will require huge subsidies and will never make money on its own merits. But don't forget that building and maintaining modern highways (not to mention all the underlying infrastructure and support for automobile transportation -- cheap gas, rest stops, bridge repairs, etc) requires staggering subsidies, too -- we just don't notice those subsidies because they are a "normal" part of the budget process; high speed rail is new and hence we notice the cost. (Also, many people don't know that there are significant direct and indirect subsidies supporting air travel, as well -- like highways, these are costs that have become normalized and are mostly unnoticed.)

So I'm all in favor of a bunch of Californians I'll never meet being given some super duper rail lines, because if they can make it work maybe the rest of the west can eventually get slightly decent passenger rail connections.
posted by Forktine at 9:27 PM on June 14, 2009 [3 favorites]


I see a bit of an issue with the central valley being massively flood prone. And when I say "a bit of an issue" I mean, how the hell are they going to build this thing so it runs in the winter without making the tracks 10' above the surrounding land the entire way from Tracy to Bakersfield? High speed trains can only run high speed on very well maintained and inspected tracks that aren't, for example, underwater at various points.

Taiwan got around this issue, the tracks are elevated 10 or so meters- it's also an earthquake prone part of the world, and just for the record, the HSR in Taiwan rocks old skool

wiki
posted by mattoxic at 9:30 PM on June 14, 2009


Too many stakeholders would want to see HSR fail including the airline industry, the automobile industry, the petroleum industry, and numerous other deep-pocketed lobby groups.

I think for California HSR, it's actually going to be a whole different set of problems, at least in the short term. I know GM killed the LA streetcar, etc etc, but this time there is going to be a much bigger problem with all the rich NIMBYs on the peninsula up north. The article alluded to the problems in Palo Alto specifically, but I think it's happening in a lot of other surrounding communities as well. Property owners support high speed rail, but not right here; maybe somewhere else that's kind of, you know, "here," but doesn't lower my property value. While none of these stakeholders is as powerful as the auto industry or the airline industry, there are a WHOLE LOT of them and it's going to be a major pain pleasing everybody, or pissing them off roughly equally, before this train can be built.

I wonder if there's some way they could use the Caltrain rights of way, but those tracks already run pretty close to the surrounding businesses and houses in a lot of spots.
posted by rkent at 9:34 PM on June 14, 2009


I'm excited by the mere prospect that we could have useful long distance mass transit.

I'm not sure why you don't think airlines qualify. Perhaps you meant "useful medium distance mass transit"?
posted by roystgnr at 9:37 PM on June 14, 2009


SWA is $150 between SFO and LAX.

Don't take SWA from SFO, take BART to Oakland. OAK—LAX is $50 each way.
posted by ryanrs at 9:50 PM on June 14, 2009


Is there a chance the rail could bend?
posted by HumuloneRanger at 9:55 PM on June 14, 2009


Who will ride HSR is built if the rest of the public transportation stays in the car-centric model that is America of today. You can get to your city of choice via HSR but then you're stuck at the train station? Not a solution.

Yeah, that's why air travel failed. You end up at an airport terminal? What bullshit that was!
posted by rodgerd at 10:04 PM on June 14, 2009 [6 favorites]


There is some impressive and plausible reason why the US is special and can't possibly use the rail solutions effectively employed in $Non_US_Nation.
posted by pompomtom at 10:04 PM on June 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Same reason a Sydney Melbourne HST won't happen, no one wants to spend the money

that and Melbourne is swimming in swine 'flu
posted by mattoxic at 10:23 PM on June 14, 2009


rkent: The current plan *is* to use the Caltrain right of way .. which is where some of that NIMBYism comes in (I'm looking at you Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton). And if it doesn't end up using the Caltrain right of way, it's just not going to happen: going out to the 280 corridor would be absurdly expensive (and possibly not possible at all) and there really isn't any other corridor to use.

The California High Speed Rail Blog regularly has articles about the stakeholder problems.
posted by R343L at 10:30 PM on June 14, 2009


JetBlue flies in an hour for $100 between SFO and Long Beach, SWA is $150 between SFO and LAX.

If you're under the impression those prices are anything like the relative cost of jet-fueled air travel compared to less oil-intensive options around the time of this rail project's most optimistic completion date - 2020, according to the linked article - I would suggest you haven't been talking to any fossil fuel geologists lately.

The best argument for high-speed rail - lots of it, everywhere currently even sorta feasible, as soon as possible - is that by the time we need it we'll probably be in the midst of an economic mess that'll make the last year and a half of price shocks and meltdown look like the good ole days. It's only going to get harder to make the transition.

Apologies for the self-link, but it was the easiest way to point to all that data in one quick & dirty URL.
posted by gompa at 10:49 PM on June 14, 2009 [3 favorites]


Same reason a Sydney Melbourne HST won't happen, no one wants to spend the money

I thought they'd all gone pinko now?
posted by pompomtom at 10:57 PM on June 14, 2009


Burlingame and the peninsula cities ruined it for BART 30 years ago. Basically a bunch of racism going on back then, is my understanding. They better not fuck up and ruin it for high speed rail. Stupid lifestyle liberals.
posted by wuwei at 11:12 PM on June 14, 2009


Affordable, dependable, fast public transport? I like it.

Well....

It hasn't been built. We're probably too broke to begin it, let alone finish it. And why on earth would you assume it'd be affordable and dependable? Sounds like it'd be a state-long Big Dig/union jobs project that would end up being run in the red out of governmental vanity with expensive and empty seats.
posted by codswallop at 11:18 PM on June 14, 2009


The so-called "budget shortfalls" are now to the tune of $24.3 billion

You do know what a bond issue is, don't you? The money comes from the people who buy the bonds.

This top-down Manhattan Project-scale idea has disastrous boondoggle written all over it.

Well, I'm not saying that massive state spending projects don't have boondoggle attached to their names on a regular basis, but there are many transportation and infrastructure projects with the same top-down setup. It's pretty much the only way to do anything larger than a bridge over a crick.

Alain L’Hostis, a geographer at the Université Paris-Est, told me that the train has undoubtedly changed the psychological distance between places. For the French, he said, the mobility has created among many citizens “a feeling of belonging to a common or interconnected city.”

This. I think this already exists in Britain, exemplified somewhat by the Gomez song Whippin' Piccadilly. I actually think it used to exist to an extent in the US as well. I think the way that airplanes whisk us over other cities instead of through them, and Interstates past them, has affected this sense of geography (see Blue Highways, et al.) Of course, HSR doesn't hit all the towns in between either.
posted by dhartung at 12:11 AM on June 15, 2009


You do know what a bond issue is, don't you? The money comes from the people who buy the bonds.

What? No! This is part of what has gotten California into this giant mess to begin with.

The money only comes from the people who buy the bonds in the same sense that the money to buy a house comes from the bank that gives you a mortgage: A bond issue is essentially a loan, and you have to pay it back with interest. So if you issue $30billion in bonds you probably end up paying out $60billion.

The money doesn't come from the people who buy the bonds, it comes from our kids and, probably, grandkids. And it's all money that could be used for schools and hospitals.

I'm all for balancing the budget and then deciding this is a project we need to do, but the idea that it's somehow free money because we can just issue more bonds is crazy voodoo economics. We're paying tons of interest on past bond issues already. At some point you have to realize you just don't have any more goddamn money. And you hope that point is before you're so screwed you have no way to dig out of the hole.
posted by Justinian at 12:33 AM on June 15, 2009


I'm all for balancing the budget and then deciding this is a project we need to do, but the idea that it's somehow free money because we can just issue more bonds is crazy voodoo economics.

Well, sure, but assuming we do issue the bonds the money won't just disappear. Revenue will be returned both directly through fares and indirectly through increased development and property values along the route, more jobs, etc. We can argue about whether this is a good investment, but it is certainly an investment. It's not borrowing money to pay for running costs, which would be pretty crazy.
posted by alexei at 3:03 AM on June 15, 2009


We can argue about whether this is a good investment, but it is certainly an investment.

I agree; I don't think you'd make that money back for a long, long, long, long time if ever but as you say that's a different argument. But you make investments when you have money. A broke person doesn't borrow money to put into the stock market. Investing non-existent money is part of what got us into the current wall street mess.
posted by Justinian at 4:28 AM on June 15, 2009


The rail system would make some sense if the Central Valley were to become a conurbanation with 3X the population.

The population is projected to triple within our lifetimes, and speaking as one of many people who grew up two hours away from the nearest real airport,* this would be a real boon to a part of the state that otherwise gets relentlessly shat on.

*(Although, OK, the SMF-or-OAK game was always a highlight of planning for holidays at home.)
posted by kittyprecious at 4:36 AM on June 15, 2009


how the USPS would do passenger rail -- suckily

Given that they handle many more items than anyone else on the continent, with a per-piece cost that's far, far lower than any alternative, I'm not sure how you're coming to that conclusion.
posted by oaf at 5:08 AM on June 15, 2009


I bought train tickets to go to my brother's wedding in Baltimore. Since Amtrak cut their prices for the summer, this is the first time ever I have paid less for a train ticket than an equivalent plane ticket. Shit's messed up.
posted by backseatpilot at 5:10 AM on June 15, 2009


[Previously] This is a bad time for California to be shouldering any large-scale projects on it's own -- even if it is the world's 6th largest economy.

If it's at all possible, the debt-load shiold be distributed among several states. (But that runs the risk of inter-regional TARFU, like we have in the DC metropolitan area -- Maryland doesn't have the money, Virginia is for Drivers, etc.)

Better yet, someone should look into making the French, the Brits or the Japanese partners on some of these infrastructure projects. I know that many of them are screwed by the same financial mess that we are, but perhaps some of them might see an upside* to investing in the future of intra-regional US travel? There are more people in the state of California and along the Eastern seaboard than there are in Japan.

And the Japanese, the Brits and the French already have the technology -- there's no need for the Americans to start from scratch, as they did with Acela.

*Like so many other ventures, the Japanese or the French could see themsleves bough out by Google or Microsoft in 10 years' time, if the project is a success..
posted by vhsiv at 5:16 AM on June 15, 2009


Indeed, they already have a decent speed train they use (Acela) to do this. But they can't get around freight rail, who owns all of the tracks and refuses to let Amtrak get in their way.

what

The track that Acela runs on between New York and Washington is owned by Amtrak. The track that Acela runs on between New York and Boston is owned by Amtrak and Metro-North. Very little freight runs on those tracks.
posted by oaf at 5:19 AM on June 15, 2009


there's no need for the Americans to start from scratch, as they did with Acela.

The Acela trains were developed by Bombardier and Alstom, who also have developed high-speed trains in Europe. The design differs from European designs mostly for regulatory reasons (the trains have to be heavier, due to the US's crash-test requirements.)

Aside: does anyone know whether the car or airline industries had a hand in setting the US's train crash-test requirements to make high-speed rail less viable?
posted by acb at 5:27 AM on June 15, 2009


The crash-test requirements for Acela were more stringent because it runs on a line with level crossings (road and rail), which the "real" high speed train-sets do not.
posted by cardboard at 5:58 AM on June 15, 2009


Aniola, you requested more information on the topic, and I recommend looking at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History www.lamnh.org website. There's a show called "Collapse" based on the work of Jared Diamond that offers a range of projections on subjects relevant to transportation, water, demographics. I saw the show about three years ago and I am surprised how the scholars projections have matched trends. There's also a great study of water recycling and the ocean on the site.

Nthing folks who snark about Cal and SoCal not really seeing the virtues and potential of the state. California pulled the US toward recycling, better air quality standards and lots of other useful directions. And urban LA has a lot to offer.
posted by effluvia at 6:22 AM on June 15, 2009


Acela trainsets also need to be heavier because they're tilting trainsets -- they bank into turns to be able to handle small radius curves. LGV lines* have long radius curves, so TGV trainsets don't need to lean to handle the curve.

The WCML in the UK has similar problems, which is why the Virgin Trains Pendelino trainsets are also tilting trainsets. I don't know if they've ever run them fast enough to need the tilt -- there are other issues with running 140mph on the WCML.


** Yes, I know "LGV lines" is like "ATM machines." Cope.
posted by eriko at 6:25 AM on June 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Though isn't it the case that a lot of the problems with US rail (such as speed limits on existing lines) has to do with the safety standards on US railroads being much higher than in Europe, making it more expensive or difficult to run a comparable service? If so, that would be very convenient for the airlines, automobile manufacturers and oil companies (to name three interested parties), and it's difficult to imagine that they wouldn't fund astroturf lobby groups to ensure that rail transportation didn't become faster or more economical, all couched in disingenuous terms of "maintaining American rail's high standards" or similar.
posted by acb at 7:07 AM on June 15, 2009


Safety standards aren't higher on US lines. US lines are just less safe for high speed operations because of the level crossings, tight-radius curves and slow-moving freight trains that have been mentioned before. The current US rail infrastructure does not support the safe operation of TGV/ICE/AVE-style high speed trains, so Acela was designed with extra safety bulit into the train itself.
posted by cardboard at 7:35 AM on June 15, 2009


And the Japanese, the Brits and the French already have the technology

Just to note - don't ask us, our fast trains are French TGVs. We're in the same boat as you in not having invested properly in HSR, though for very different (and actually quite defensible) reasons.
posted by Sova at 8:13 AM on June 15, 2009


Britain's French-designed fast trains only run on one line, from London to France (and from there, branching to Belgium). The high-speed line, HS1, will support domestic services from this year, but those (AFAIK) won't be TGV variants but a Japanese design from Hitachi.
posted by acb at 8:27 AM on June 15, 2009


ACB, it has nothing to do with evil oil companies. Actually, rail crash standards originate in horrible train crashes that happened throughout the 19th and early 20th century. Think about passenger trains hitting freight trains. Ugly. We run passenger trains and freight on the same lines-- other countries don't. We can change that, it just costs money.
posted by wuwei at 8:35 AM on June 15, 2009


High-speed trains would definitely help highway traffic, and don't call me Shirley.
posted by Evilspork at 8:38 AM on June 15, 2009


@wuwei: Britain runs freight and passenger trains on the same lines. (One often sees freight trains making their way down the North London Line; apparently these include trains carrying nuclear waste from power stations.) Britain's trains aren't limited to the same low speed (what is it, 73mph or something?) passenger trains on most of the US network are. And yet, somehow, Britain's railways have an excellent safety record, with crashes being extremely rare.

Which suggests to me that either US railroads are in a much more poorly state, or the US rail safety standards have been drafted well beyond the point of diminishing returns. And, if the latter, the logical question is: who stands to benefit?
posted by acb at 9:40 AM on June 15, 2009


Mono--doh!
posted by box at 10:00 AM on June 15, 2009


What a give-away we gave to the railroads in the 19th century, and they still all went bankrupt.

Yeah, but only after they essentially facilitated the creation of modern interstate commerce, allowing essential infrastructure and trade routes to be established that made the next two century's worth of progress possible. (Well, I see now that according to Wikipedia there's one reputable historian who argues we could have reached the same endpoint without trains, only much more slowly and at greater social costs. But either way, the 19th century railways created significant tangible benefits to the public that we still enjoy today and that can't be reduced to the simple profitability of railway operations. Besides for all I know, that guy edited Wikipedia to include his theories himself. j/k.)
posted by saulgoodman at 10:56 AM on June 15, 2009


Judging by the experiences of Japan and France, both of which have mature high-speed rail systems, it would end the expansion of regional airline traffic as in-state travelers increasingly ride the fast trains

Fans of rail are quick to point to France and Japan as shining examples of high speed rail (and public transit in general). I can't speak to France, and while I love the Tokyo subways, and the highspeed rail is fantastic when coupled with a rail pass, it is insanity to call these successful examples. The Tokyo subway benefit greatly by the lack of cars, cost of living and sheer density of the place and are still complete financial disasters. The Japanese highspeed rail is in a similar state.

It is pure insanity to wish that California, which does not have nearly the same benefit of density, to build these projects. This is the same place that cannot really even make lightrail and commuter rail work for most residents.
posted by rr at 10:58 AM on June 15, 2009


The budget currently being, erm, railroaded through the CA legislature would close over 80% of our state parks; cut $5.2 billion from K-12 education over the next two years; would entirely eliminate the CalWORKs welfare assistance and workforce development programs; would entirely eliminate the Healthy Families program, which provides health care to low-income kids; would entirely eliminate Cal Grants, which provide assistance to low- and middle-income college students who could probably not attain a degree without the financial help; and it would dictate layoffs for an undetermined, ever-changing number of public school teachers and state workers (the pay of the latter has already been cut by ~10%).

But hey, at least all these unemployed, uninsured Californians who don't have access to health care and education and who don't have jobs will be able to ride the train to LA in an unprecedented amount of time!

That anyone in California would even be doodling pictures of this magic train right now proves how screwed we are.

Take that $30+ billion and put it to work, please. That train is a neat idea, but good god, it can wait a few more years.
posted by mudpuppie at 11:52 AM on June 15, 2009


Indeed, they already have a decent speed train they use (Acela) to do this.

Having taken the Acela New York to Washington a few times, I'm not impressed. The speed increase can easily be reduced to almost nothing when they run late. I take regular Amtrak.
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:55 AM on June 15, 2009


A professor visiting from Germany and lecturing down at UC Davis wanted to make it up to the University of Oregon for one day to attend a seminar or something. He tells one of my professors, "I don't think it will be a big deal, I'll just catch a train up and a train back and I'll be able to fit it into my tight schedule." My professor, trying not to laugh, explains Amtrak.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 12:28 PM on June 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Not to mention that even if there were a 150mph train with no intervening stops, the trip would still take more than three hours each way.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:00 PM on June 15, 2009


reminds me of how the USPS would do passenger rail -- suckily

What on earth is sucky about the USPS?
posted by five fresh fish at 1:28 PM on June 15, 2009


from the article:

the stupendous cost of the rail plan is still tens of billions of dollars lower than the other option — expanding the highways and airports to accommodate the state’s population growth.

This. People throw around terms like "boondoggle" and "we don't have the money for this" and "we should balance the budget first" without stopping to consider that the alternative to spending $$$ on High Speed Rail is not spending nothing. It's spending $$$ on highway expansion, $$$ on airport expansion, and $$$ on being endlessly stuck in traffic and remaining dependent on oil. The population of the state is growing, and we are going to have another 15 million or so people here by 2030. Doing nothing is not an option. HSR isn't some pie-in-the-sky futuristic promise like maglev or PRT. It's proven technology.

It's my understanding that the airlines aren't fighting HSR in California because they understand that airports are at capacity, and HSR will free up a lot of slots for longer haul flights. Southwest Airlines flies over 300 flights daily between the Bay Area and the LA basin. Expending the fuel to get a plane five miles up in the sky only to land it 250 miles later is incredibly wasteful. Even if HSR does ultimately take more than three hours from LA to SF, it will still be faster than driving or even flying- no security theater is planned for HSR, no need to get to the station an hour before your train leaves.

rr, do you have cites to back up your claims about Japan Rail? My understanding is the opposite.
posted by ambrosia at 2:07 PM on June 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Why should the gov't pay for it? Lease the lines out to private companies, create an open market and let the dollars decide.
posted by blue_beetle at 3:22 PM on June 15, 2009


Same reason a Sydney Melbourne HST won't happen, no one wants to spend the money

Plenty of people have come up and said they'd spend the money over the years. Actually the biggest problem with a Sydney <> Melbourne HST is that so much of the right of way for a reasonably direct (read: short) route would have to run smack through the middle of millions of hectares of national parks.

Which ain't going to happen if you know what I mean. Greens would want to have their cake and eat it too and since they own the balance of power in the senate, well, like I said it ain't going to happen.
posted by Talez at 5:14 PM on June 15, 2009


ambrosia, only the Tokaido and Sanyo Shinkansen are profitable (or rather, make an operating profit). Every other line has yet to repay its capital costs.

One of the big problems that all HSR systems must face is political interference. Setting fares too low, or demanding new lines be built to places without sufficient demand, is a recipe for disaster. In Japan's case, although the Tokaido Shinkansen was ultimately profitable, requiring the then-state-owned railway (JNR) to keep fares low increased their debt burden substantially. This and other debt led to the breakup of the company; after privatization, the trillions of yen in debt and interest were ultimately treated as government debt.

That's not to say that CAHSR could never be profitable. I believe that it could, but the capital costs would have to be treated the same as for airports and highways -- that is, "subsidized" by the government. That way, it can compete on a more level playing field. Any profit net of operating costs, maintenance, etc. raised by the system can then go towards repaying some of the capital costs incurred or new expansion.

As for whether there will be enough riders, there will. Gas prices will rise; traffic congestion between SF and LA will worsen; urban density will increase; intracity mass transit will improve. California compares well to France and particularly Spain in population density and distribution, and ridership projections for the California system are more conservative than either country. However, this is a long term process -- riders will not immediately switch to HSR, and politicking and poor planning can bring negative media coverage (which then discourages ridership).

HSR along sufficiently dense population corridors will be necessary going forward. There is no argument here, I believe -- even with GPS-based air traffic control to increase flight density and more and wider highways, nothing is more efficient at moving large numbers of people within 500 km than HSR. Yes, it's expensive, but so is everything else once economic externalities are considered. The US is starting very late, but that doesn't change the need for such systems. I just hope that voters can be persuaded of this.
posted by armage at 5:15 PM on June 15, 2009


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