James Fallows is back with his occasional series on California’s high speed rail project, which includes some great reader responses:
I travel frequently from San Francisco to Southern California to visit an elderly parent. I cannot count the number of times my plane is late. This time, like the last time, it was 3 hours late. I commented to someone seated next to me in the crowded unpleasant lobby that when high speed rail goes in, I will never fly to Southern California again. The airport is always crammed, there is never a power outlet available, the planes are crammed as well as late, and the whole experience is awful. My airfare on Southwest is usually closer to $250 each way than $130—speaking as someone who actually flies this route (to San Diego).
San Francisco’s runways are too small and it gets fogged in. The fog would not impact the train.
I do not agree that our state should live in backwardness, under development, and inefficiency because there are folks who don’t believe in state investments in infrastructure. I suggest that these folks take a look out the window the next time they actually do fly in California. Look for the dams, in particular. The feat of engineering that is the California Water Project is what makes our lives here possible. I am beyond annoyed that there are people who have appointed themselves as judge and jury that public infrastructure cannot work by definition. It is a willful and selective blindness. I do not appreciate these attempts to undermine our collective future.
That’s a powerful, fantastic jeremiad against the small minded and backward looking people who spend their time and even their money desperately trying to prevent California from embracing a better and more sustainable future.
Another letter from a regular commuter between Northern and Southern California points out the value of HSR to commuters:
I commute from LA to SF weekly to commute to a job in Silicon Valley (Redwood City, actually). I bought a house close to LAX (in Mar Vista) to facilitate the move. I don’t want to be any closer because of aircraft noise. I can make it from my house to the Parking Spot on Sepulveda in 15 minutes at any time of day (quick cruise down Centinela). I need to budget 3 1/2 hours door to door to make the trip….
Anyway, from the point of view of time efficiency, I think it is pretty clear that CA HSR for my commute will be a wash when it is done. There are enough new subways going to LA Union Station that I will have a much broader section of neighborhoods to choose from (and many cooler ones) within a few minutes walk to the subway as opposed to the 15 minute drive and 15 minute park at LAX with the same time before departure. Metro is projecting a 25 minute trip to downtown from Westwood on the Purple Line to Union Station, and it will be done before HSR. In terms of quality factor, eliminating the lines I wait in for security, and both to board and disembark from the aircraft, will be the biggest pluses.
Keep in mind that by the time HSR opens from LA to SF, the rail network in LA will have been vastly improved. Further, the cost of flying will have risen, perhaps significantly, and that will provide HSR with a cost advantage. Ultimately, this commuter’s experience simply reflects the reality we’ve seen in Spain and elsewhere: that when you build HSR between two cities, it grabs a majority of the travel market share from the airlines. That same commuter offers a very useful list of suggestions that would make HSR even more attractive to a commuter, a list that this blog has been pushing for six years now:
I think CA HSR can really get the edge over flying in the following situations:
* people who want to get off farther down the Peninsula (e.g. Googlers going to Mountain View). San Jose Airport has many fewer flights so that’s not a good option either.
* coordinated schedules with Caltrain with ZipCar’s available at the train station so I can avoid the rental car
* nicer amenities (e.g. more legroom, bigger tables)
* if the HSR folks get their act together and arrange for high-speed internet connectivity on the high-speed rail, that would make HSR an easy choice over the flights. It seems like you should be able to do way better in bandwidth on the ground than in the air, although the European HSR lines aren’t particularly good at Internet connectivity right now.
Note the point about destinations below Palo Alto. This is why serving San José on a spur with the mainline connecting to the Peninsula at Menlo Park via the Dumbarton corridor is such a bad idea.
Another writer appears to be deeply confused as to the state of mass transit in LA:
I’m a believer in high speed rail, but I think California has its priorities confused. One of your writers nailed it but then didn’t elaborate.
The key to any successful high speed rail system isn’t in the middle, it’s at the two ends. Without a first rate local system of public transportation at each terminus, most of high speed rail’s advantages evaporate. I’d accordingly suggest that California’s highest priority should be addressing the rotten public transportation system in LA.
I think Governor Brown is pushing HSR because it is a project that is within his purview and something at which he might succeed. Solving LA’s transit problems is probably a greater challenge, and not exactly the responsibility of the Governor. But building HSR before addressing public transit in LA is simply putting lipstick on a pig (lovely lipstick, admittedly, but still lipstick).
First off, solving LA’s transit problems is absolutely the responsibility of the governor and the state legislature. California should be taking a greater role in addressing local transit needs.
And that’s what they’re doing. Cap-and-trade will help fund improvements to transit within metro areas, as well as connect them with high speed rail.
But more importantly, this letter writer is simply wrong to assume that public transit in LA is being ignored. I’m guessing the writer lives in Northern California, or in a Southern California suburb far removed from LA proper. LA is building more mass transit right now than perhaps any other city in America. If a new transit measure appears on the November 2016 ballot and is approved, then LA’s dramatic expansion will merely accelerate. By the time HSR opens from SF to LA, the City of Angels will have a far more extensive mass transit network than SF and the Bay Area, which appear content with their status quo.
Fallows gives the final word to Mike Lofgren, author of a great book on Republican extremism:
It might be useful to anchor the whole California rail debate in the historical context of infrastructure in America: The antebellum Southern opposition to internal improvements is still with us today in thinly disguised form.
So very true. Opposition to HSR isn’t about the details of the project, it’s about hostility to government spending on infrastructure, plain and simple. Californians do not share that hostility, and that is why anti-HSR forces have consistently lost in their efforts to stop the project.