Why California may yet see its high speed trains

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, February 22, 2011

My friend Ken asked me the other day, will Texas ever develop high speed trains? Ken is from Texas, obviously. The Texas High-Speed Rail and Transportation Corp. works tirelessly toward its goal. But I immediately answered no. Ken asked why not? Good question; why had I shot off my mouth? And when I began to reply I realized I had stumbled onto something.
Texas won’t get a high speed railroad anytime soon, I said, because there’s not enough political support in that state to make it happen. And there’s not enough political support because there is no train-riding tradition in Texas. People have no expectations. They don’t know what it’s like to ride a train from one Texas city to another. They don’t know the ways trains can simply their hurried lives; bring them joy, if I may be so bold. It’s like asking people in the steam engine era to imagine the Acela. They cannot. So forget money. Without a passenger train tradition, there’s no political support, and without political support, money doesn’t matter, because you won’t see the high speed train. To state it another way: There is no straight line between nothing and a high-speed line; you need to start by reintroducing passenger trains, and later get fancy.
You can apply what I just said to Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Newly elected governors saw no political downside to returning high speed rail grants to the federal government. On the other hand, look at Illinois and Washington. In both states, state governments gradually created passenger train networks, and as could be expected, it was a case of “build it and they will come.” Governors of both states are desperate for more federal high speed rail money, because voters by and large are supportive. Their states now have passenger train traditions to build on.
And what I said about Illinois and Washington applies twice over to California. The Rail Division of California’s Department of Transportation created and nurtures two of the five busiest intercity passenger train corridors in America: between San Diego and San Luis Obispo by way of Los Angeles, and between Oakland/Sacramento and Bakersfield. And a joint powers board in the San Francisco Bay area did the same between San Jose, Oakland, and Sacramento; this is now the third-most-ridden corridor in America.
In California, money remains a huge issue. The projected cost of that state’s high speed network from San Francisco to San Diego by way of Los Angeles stands at $43 billion, and only naïve people believe that’s really all it will cost. But my sense is that Californians are still supportive of this enterprise. All it takes now is the money. In Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin, all without much experience with passenger trains, high speed or otherwise, it was exactly the other way around. — Fred W. Frailey

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