December 30, 2007

California High Speed Rail and other Abstract Theories

Not too long ago, the California High Speed Rail Authority conducted a couple of meetings in Sacramento to make some crucial decisions about the route for the first leg between Anaheim and San Francisco. Along with various dignitaries like Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco, the consumer lobbying group, Train Riders Association of California (making for an easily remembered acronym) was there, and of course lots of chamber of commerce types who strenuously argued about whether the line should curve west at Altamont Pass, on a latitude with Oakland, or at Pacheco Pass and head north through San Jose. The latter route was chosen, perhaps reminding us that San Jose, after all, is the largest city in the Bay Area and the only metropolis with more than a million people. San Francisco and Oakland tend to forget this. The Santa Clara Valley is also where all the money is.

The HSRA is headed up by Chairman Quentin Kopp, who in other incarnations was a lawyer in San Francisco, a member of the Board of Supervisors and a Superior Court Judge. At the time of his appointment to the Authority, he was approximately 114 years old, which is a suspicious circumstance vis-a-vis the true level of government support for this project in the Golden State. It is true that the Authority has a younger and more energetic executive director, but still...Nevertheless, so much has been done. Environmental impact reports, mainly, but also acquisition of rights of way, which mostly already existed, of course, and yet - a stunning achievement. Although we also have to admit that not a single rail has been laid...

Once upon a time, the idea was that the high speed rail line, which would whoosh passengers between downtown San Francisco and Los Angeles's Union Station in 2-1/2 hours, would be in operation by 2012, certainly within my reasonably-expected lifetime, and even within Quentin Kopp's, if he stays away from the heavy sauces. Alas, there were delays, as the state fell into financial insolvency following the bust, and the new Govenator decided that this fun toy was not a priority compared to building more jails to provide more jobs for the prison guards union and trying to close the fiscal deficit. The $10 billion bond measure, scheduled for placement on the sacrificial altar of the 2008 general election, will determine whether the first installment on the estimated cost of $40 billion for the whole system will be funded. Schwarzenegger would prefer to delay the bond proposition once again, as it was the last time it came up. I don't think he has to worry much. I suppose it depends on the PR campaign that TRAC and others are able to bring to bear, but don't hold your breath, train lovers. Anyway, the costs now are multiples of the original estimate because of all the delays, and if they started immediately after a favorable vote in 2008, it would probably be 2025 before any trains rolled.

By comparison, the Japanese began operating their first bullet train on the Shinkansen line in 1963. The TGV in France between Lyon and Paris was initiated in 1981, running electrically on nuclear power. Through integration with the Thalys and Eurostar lines, you have been able, for many years, to zoom all over Western Europe on extremely comfortable, very fast (in excess of 200 mph) trains, and when you arrive, as in the Gare du Nord in Paris, you are already downtown. The same would be true of San Francisco to Los Angeles, of course; instead of finding yourself marooned on arrival in some distant outpost a long traffic jam from where you really want to go, you're there when you get there. At any distance up to 400 miles, high speed rail is actually faster than airplanes because of the elimination of all the check-in and strip search stuff, and the endless waiting in the airport and more waiting on the runway, and the vulnerability of planes to fog and heavy weather. In terms of fuel and passenger efficiency (passengers miles per hour), there is no comparison between high speed rail and automobiles, and trains are much safer and less exhausting to the rider.

Yet in California and the United States generally, high speed rail, at speeds and comfort levels comparable to the TGV and German Inter-City Express, has an abstract, theoretical feel to it. It's just something else that the United States lacks the will and the vision to accomplish. TRAC seems like an off-shoot of the Trekkie phenomenon, a group that gathers to argue about whether the transporter was or was not used in Episode 113. All the staff on the HSRA draw salaries, of course, and Mr. Kopp can supplement his five or six pensions with another stipend while he sententiously presides over these make-believe meetings. It all feels a little like string theory, an elegant and internally consistent construct with no actual direct application in the real world. Maybe when the HSRA meets in Sacramento, they roll out a model train diorama, with papier-mache mountains representing the Coastal Range, and plastic train stations, and the beautiful aerodynamic engines. Just like in France! And they huddle around (Quentin gets to run the transformer, of course) and watch the high speed train make a run up the plywood course from Anaheim to San Francisco (look at that cute Golden Gate Bridge someone made! and they put an Apple near San Jose! Get it?). The TRAC people look on; how they'd love to get their hands on that transformer handle! Still, they can cheer the high speed engine on. "Toot! Toot!" they all shout.

No comments:

Post a Comment