High Speed Rail: I Want to Believe

This week marks another installment in California’s quest to build a high speed train connecting the Bay Area and Los Angeles.  On Thursday,  the High Speed Rail Authority will vote to approve a new business plan. Given the Authority’s checkered past  – and Governor Brown’s recent housecleaning – I was curious to see if the new leadership has finally figured out a way to turn this train around, so to speak.

If you’re a true believer in high speed rail, then you know that waiting for it to succeed in California is like watching the 1990s TV show “The X-Files.”  Week after week, we’d tune in to find out if Mulder and Scully would finally find the proof that aliens do exist, that other worlds are out there, that a vast conspiracy has been hiding the truth from us.  Could the same be true for high speed rail in California?  Is it possible that someday we’ll really be able to ride a train across California in less than 3 hours?  Could the State of California really develop a viable plan to make this happen?

There are glimmers of hope in this new business plan.  Most importantly, the new plan drops the notion of building a brand-new system from scratch.  That was the fatal flaw in the last plan: it would’ve cost nearly $100 billion to build, and there would’ve been very few tangible benefits to travelers until the new system was nearly complete.  That was an unbelievable amount of public money to invest with so little to show for it until the very end.

The new plan focuses instead on a gradual transition to high speed rail, by upgrading California’s existing passenger train systems, including Caltrain, Metrolink, and Amtrak California.  It also ensures that the new track in the San Joaquin Valley can be used by these existing trains.  As a result of these investments, train travel in California will become faster, cleaner, and more reliable – and it will happen in 5 years, not 50.  I’m particularly excited by the “Northern California Unified Service” idea, which would merge all the Northern California train services into a single coordinated system.

Also included in the first phase is a plan to close the gap between Northern and Southern California by building a new train corridor over the Tehachapi Mountains between Bakersfield and Palmdale.   Once that happens, we would have continuous passenger rail service from San Francisco to LA.  The trip would take something like 6 hours, which is comparable to driving.  Altogether, these investments would cost $27 billion and would be finished 10 years from now. That’s about ¼ the cost of building a brand-new high speed rail system.  It wouldn’t be as fast or as cool, but it would be a huge improvement over the way things are now.  And, it could actually happen.

Later phases of the plan would build new segments of high speed track, so that eventually we’d get that mythical 3-hour train ride.  I’m not saying it couldn’t happen, but it seems like a distant prospect in the current political environment.   That’s why it’s so important that we spend the money we DO have on improvements that will stand alone.  This new plan appears to do that.  There are still lots and lots of unanswered questions –the new business plan is distressingly short on details.  I’m not a believer yet – but I’ll be tuning in for the next episode.

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