By Tom Kando
The November 6, 2011 issue of the Sacramento Bee contains an excellent article about the bullet train issue by Richard Tolmach, President of the California Rail Foundation.
I agree with Tolmach that (1) “high-speed rail must be part of California’s future,” and that (2) “the High-Speed Rail Authority has been a great disappointment.”
Discussion about high-speed rail in California began many decades ago. Planning for it started 14 years ago. Since then, the Authority has spent more than $800 million (!) of public money without producing a single mile of service, without the first shovel being picked up to actually start building the thing. $800 million spent on planning.
Predictably, there are the retrograde reactionaries who then say, “scrap the whole thing. Who needs high-speed train? It’s a boondoggle and a waste.” This is a tempting response, in our era of severe budgetary shortfalls, but it is terribly wrong.
Japan has had high-speed rail for 40 years (!). France, and Germany for several decades. Each year more countries acquire it - recently China, Spain and Poland. But America can’t?
What if we had reacted the same way 60 or 70 years ago? Then, countries were starting to build vast networks of divided turnpikes to accommodate exploding automobile traffic. Is it even conceivable that America could have said, “super-highways may be okay for Europeans, but here we don’t need them and we can’t afford them...” ?
Far from urging us to drop our plans for a bullet train, Tolmach makes the sensible proposal to dismantle the current Authority and to start all over again from scratch, this time learning from those who already have a successful track record, i.e. the Japanese and the Europeans.
I am no expert, but I have ridden high-speed trains both in Japan and in Europe - dozens of times. They are the best mode of transportation I know of. They are more comfortable, more efficient, safer, environmentally more benign , and less costly that flying, driving your private car or taking a long-distance bus.
The current California plan arrives at a $98 billion bottom line for the entire project. It uses a per-mile building cost three times higher than the European building cost. It wildly overestimates projected ridership, assuming that more people will board the bullet train in Merced than the number of people boarding Amtrak in New York, and by assuming that the California bullet train will carry twice as many riders as does the Paris-Brussels TGV.
It’s simple: We need to do it, and we need to do it right. And what better way is there than to learn from those who have already done it right? Let’s use those highly successful systems in Japan and Europe as models.
The European TGV only reaches high speed in unpopulated areas, where tracks are built safely on solid ground. Only 2% of their track is elevated (Tolmach). The California plan includes many tunnels and elevated tracks to allow trains to race through cities at 200 mph. No wonder the plan is prohibitively expensive.
European projects are international. Eurostar goes from Paris to London, Thalys goes from Paris to Amsterdam. Wouldn’t a national rather than state-by-state effort have more chances of success? Think of the Interstate Highway System, initiated by President Eisenhower in 1956 and completed 35 years later at a cost of $425 billion. That worked out pretty good, didn't it?
Tolmach, like everyone else, advocates a public-private partnership for this project. Of course. But I would just add one important question to this: what should be the public and private proportions in the financing of California’s bullet train?Again, why not look at overseas models to find out how they did it so successfully?
Maybe you’ll say: “We can’t just copy the Europeans and the Japanese. Conditions differ.”
Okay, so they do. But to me, this reeks of an excuse. My basic question is: If they can do it, why can’t we? If we conclude that we can’t do what, for example, Poland can do, then we are a sorry lot. This is not about “staying number one.” It’s about staying in the pack of moderately advanced countries.
(see Madeleine’s recent post: 'That Used to be Us').
leave comment here
Tuesday, November 8, 2011
By Tom Kando