Photo by lslphoto on Flickr.
In an editorial titled “Hit the brakes,” the Washington Post yesterday unfairly criticized California’s plan for a true high-speed rail system.
The first phase of the project would construct a line from Anaheim to Los Angeles and then on to Bakersfield, stretching through the Central Valley to reach San Jose and San Francisco. Future extensions would bring spurs to Sacramento and San Diego. Author’s note: To clarify, the first segment to open will not be the entire first phase, but only a section of it. The initial segment is described later in the article.
The project is one of the most promising in the country. Unlike now-dead proposals in Wisconsin and Ohio, California’s project would result in a true high-speed line. Trains would have a top speed of 220 miles per hour, almost 50% greater than the top speed of Amtrak’s Acela Express.
That means that a passenger could board a train at Union Station in Los Angeles and be in downtown San Francisco in 2 hours and 38 minutes. That’s slightly less than the 2 hours 45 minutes needed to go from Washington to New York on Acela.
But the Washington Post doesn’t think anyone would ride a train like that ... despite the fact that an example exists right in the Post’s backyard.
Here in the northeast, by some estimations, Amtrak has captured more half of the market share for travelers in the Washington-New York-Boston corridor. Currently, the largest short-haul air market in the country is between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
California’s main high-speed line will link Los Angeles and San Francisco with a trip time much shorter than that of driving and competitive with that of flying, especially considering trip time to the airport and security delays.
Americans will take trains, especially when they’re convenient. California has a history of supporting and building successful rail routes. Since 1990, the California Department of Transportation has been building upon 3 intra-state corridor services, branded under the Amtrak California banner.
These 3 routes rank 3rd, 4th, and 6th nationally in overall ridership, behind only the Northeast Regional and Acela Express (Pennsylvania’s Keystone Corridor is 5th). And that’s despite the fact that the California routes aren’t high-speed.
And just this week, America 2050 released a report ranking potential high-speed rail corridors nationwide. Among long corridors (greater than 300 miles), LA-San Francisco ranked second behind Washington-Boston.
Additionally, Californians support the project. They voted in 2008 to approve nearly $10 billion in bonds for the project. That sort of commitment is nothing to sneeze at.
All of these data bode well for California. Unlike Ohio and Florida, the Golden State has a history of supporting rail. And Californians have proven that they will ride the rails in numbers, even though their state is much less dense than its northeastern counterparts.
But that’s not enough for the Post. Instead they criticize the project as a wasteful and with dubious feasibility. But their arguments don’t hold water.
The Post calls into question the wisdom of building the first section in the middle of nowhere. But that’s not the case.
It is true that the first section of track to actually be constructed will run from Bakersfield to Corcoran, both in the Central Valley. But trains won’t just run between those two cities. The new line will be connected to the existing Amtrak corridor in the Valley, meaning that even before the bullet trains arrive on site, passengers will benefit from a faster trip between Bakersfield and Sacramento.
Besides, the line has to begin somewhere. On October 1, 1940, the Pennsylvania Turnpike opened. It ran from Carlisle to Irwin, both in the middle of nowhere. It didn’t even reach Harrisburg in the east or Pittsburgh in the west. But that didn’t mean that cars traveling between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg couldn’t use it where it did exist.
The truth of the matter is that this is a great first step, and it’s a good use of limited resources, especially since the routes on the Peninsula and in the Los Angeles area are not even settled.
The Post also calls into question the ability of the California High Speed Rail Authority to administer the project. But, as the California High Speed Rail Blog points out, the report that the Post cites as damning merely concludes that the Authority is transitioning from planning to building and needs to choose a business model.
Most disappointing, though, is that the Post seems to believe that, “In much of the country passenger rail can’t compete with car travel by interstate highways. It’s unclear that the public benefits attributed to high-speed rail — reduced carbon emissions and less airport congestion — would outweigh the inevitable operating subsidies.”
This ignores the fact that both highway travel and air travel, at least as we know them, are possible only through subsidies. And it also suggests that California is one of the places where train travel won’t work; something that the evidence seems to disprove.
The success of the California project will only make it easier for America to get behind other high-speed rail and corridor train services. That means that a new northeastern super-fast line — something not even designed yet — will face fewer hurdles.
The Washington Post should get behind California’s high-speed line not just because it’s a good project with the potential to transform California and her urban areas, but also because it will make 220 mph East Coast trains more likely.