Politics & Media
Jun 15, 2009, 07:13AM


Are high speed trains the solution to California's transportation problems?

This is a story not about Amtrak but about trains, and the problem with any story about trains in America is that you often find yourself thinking about Amtrak, and you often find yourself thinking about how nice it would be if you weren’t thinking about Amtrak. This is especially true when you’re actually riding on Amtrak, which happened to be the case one morning in March when I boarded the Pacific Surfliner in downtown Los Angeles for a 500-mile trip, mostly up the coast, to Sacramento. Anyone who lives in California can tell you that this is folly: other ways of traveling from Los Angeles to Sacramento are quicker and less frustrating and not much more expensive. You can fly in 90 minutes for around $100. Or you can drive in six hours for less than $50 in gas. For $55, my Amtrak journey was scheduled to take at least 12 hours 25 minutes. With any luck, I would arrive there by 9 p.m. And it was fairly obvious to me that I would need some luck, because my ticket to Sacramento had not bought me a train ride, exactly, but a train-bus-train ride. In San Luis Obispo, I would get off the Surfliner and board an Amtrak bus; in San Jose, I would get off the bus and board a different train to Sacramento. There was little room for error: a slow train and I would miss the bus; a slow bus and I would miss the second train. It’s true I could have taken other trains to Sacramento instead, but these had their own drawbacks. The Coast Starlight, for instance, which runs north along the Pacific Coast from L.A., doesn’t involve any buses, but travel time is an estimated 13 hours 44 minutes. What’s worse, the Starlight, a k a the Starlate, is a train of such legendary unreliability that it is not so much a train as an anti-train. In the past it has been known to run 11 or 12 hours behind schedule and post an on-time percentage in the single digits. A third travel option promised to take about eight hours over a more direct inland route. To leave at a reasonable hour, though, I would need to take a bus from L.A. to Bakersfield, catch a train called the San Joaquin and travel to Stockton, then ride another bus from Stockton to Sacramento. So I opted for the train-bus-train combo over the bus-train-bus alternative.The Surfliner was scheduled to leave at 7:30 a.m., and as it happened we pulled out of the station only a minute late. I had two reasons for going to Sacramento. The first was to get a clearer sense of why a lot of people in California think it’s necessary to build an entirely new passenger-rail system. The second was to see how they might do so. Since it was established in 1996, the California High Speed Rail Authority, an assemblage of train advocates and engineers, had been working out of offices in the capital to explore how the state could build a rail line from Los Angeles to San Francisco for $33 billion, with two additional branches — costing billions more — eventually extending to Sacramento in the north and San Diego in the south. It would not be an Amtrak operation but one owned by the state of California. Last November, state voters approved a $10 billion bond measure to get the project moving. Earlier this year, President Obama, who on a trip to France in April conceded he was “jealous” of European high-speed trains, submitted budget and stimulus plans that together allocated approximately $13 billion for high-speed rail over the next five years. It seems almost certain that at least some of that money, and perhaps a significant percentage of it, will go this fall to California’s project, which is the most developed of any U.S. high-speed-rail plan.Ray LaHood, the U.S. secretary of transportation, told me recently that Californians “are obviously way, way ahead of everyone else.” In late May, LaHood rode on the French and Spanish high-speed-rail lines and met with European train companies that hope to sell their products to the United States.If it can get started, the California high-speed train would almost certainly be the most expensive single infrastructure project in United States history. And if it is completed, the train will go from L.A. to San Francisco in just under 2 hours 40 minutes and from L.A. to Sacramento in about 2 hours 17 minutes. Judging by the experiences of Japan and France, both of which have mature high-speed rail systems, it would end the expansion of regional airline traffic as in-state travelers increasingly ride the fast trains. And it would surely slow the growth of highway traffic. Other potential benefits are also intriguing: a probable economic windfall for several cities along the route, with rejuvenated neighborhoods and center cities; several hundred thousand jobs in construction, manufacturing, operations and maintenance; and the environmental benefits that come from vehicles far more efficient and far less polluting than jets, buses and cars. Apart from the breathtaking price tag, commentators often focus on the projected velocity of the California trains, on how they will reach an astounding 220 m.p.h. in some stretches near Bakersfield and will cover the distance from L.A. to the Bay Area at an average speed approaching 175 m.p.h. As someone who never understood the zealotry of hard-core train enthusiasts, I found the project’s other selling points more compelling: center city to center city in a few hours without airport lines or onerous security checks. No bus connections. No traffic. And no counting on luck. Which is to say that high-speed trains are obviously about going fast, but when you think about it, they’re just as much about time as speed.Once our Surfliner left the Los Angeles metro area, the stations slipped past slowly: Glendale, Van Nuys, Simi Valley, Moorpark, Camarillo, Oxnard. Two hours into the ride, near Ventura, we picked up the pace, and soon the train was zipping along the shoreline, first passing lemon groves and freshly plowed fields, then grasslands of wildflowers and scrub brush — punctuated in places by a lone cypress — that all sloped a hundred yards or so downhill toward the Pacific. On a plane at 30,000 feet or in a car on a highway whose inclines have been tamed and curves eased, you can forget the great sweep of California’s topography. Rediscovering it on the Surfliner is something to say in its favor. On the other hand, you can also rediscover why you might rather fly.Somewhere in the midst of this desolate and gusty landscape we came to a dead stop. Ten minutes passed, then 20. There was a faint hum from the engines; a rocking motion from the wind. The train was about half full, and most of us looked at each other for clues. Eventually, two conductors walked up the aisle toward the engine car. Both were strapping on heavy work gloves. Something needed fixing outside, obviously, since we heard them descend to the tracks, followed by laughter and some alarming clanging noises. Across the aisle, a woman glanced at me nervously.When the conductors stepped back on board, they had satisfied looks. “We threw some switches to get onto the sidings,” one of them told me, catching her breath as she removed her work gloves. I hadn’t realized that Amtrak employees who take tickets and wear crisp formal uniforms also tend to the tracks. But on the Surfliner, at least, they do.Several hours later, when we finally pulled into San Luis Obispo, it was early afternoon and we were running about 30 minutes late. Out on the station platform, a conductor informed us that a connection was around the corner: a shiny blue bus, emblazoned with an Amtrak California seal. A large crowd surrounded the bus driver, a big man who was loading luggage into the stowaway compartment. One by one he pointed to each of us and asked us to step forward, state our destination and hand over our suitcases. Apparently he had a system of arranging baggage in some kind of highly complex, reverse-chronological order. The process took him 30 minutes.Before he started the bus, the driver informed us that unless it was an emergency, we should not use the bathroom on board — it was, he said, not “really working, actually.” The bus would be making a few stops, he said, including one in a place called King City, where we would have 15 minutes at a McDonald’s. But we would not be permitted to go to the King City Taco Bell two parking lots over or to the King City Starbucks across the street. “Sorry, guys,” he said. Those places were too far away. “We’ll have to leave without you,” he added sternly. A simple journey up the coast had turned into a class trip with the assistant principal. But as we got on the highway, I was mostly concerned about the time and wondering how I could possibly connect, four hours from now, with my second train.


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