Should California cater to a small number of Peninsula NIMBYs and truncate the HSR line from LA to SF at San José? That’s a question that has popped up during some of the Peninsula scoping sessions, as some residents think “well let’s just drop everyone off at Diridon Station and put them on the Caltrain Baby Bullets! Isn’t that good enough?”
As Clem points out at the Caltrain HSR Compatibility Blog, however, not all “bullet” trains are alike:
Baby Bullets look sleek, and they impress when they blast by, horn blaring. However, they are nowhere near as fast on average as the proposed high speed trains. Timings from San Jose to San Francisco:
* Caltrain local: 96 minutes – max speed 79 mph – average speed 29 mph
* Caltrain Baby Bullet: 57 minutes – max speed 79 mph – average speed 49 mph
* HSR: 30 minutes – max speed 125 mph (a.k.a “half speed”) – average speed 94 mph
HSR at “half speed” is still nearly twice as fast as the Baby Bullet.
Clem also points out that it’s impractical to have “half speed HSR” trains run on just the two existing tracks – you can’t mix speeds quite like that, especially given the heavy usage already on those tracks. The overall impact on a trip from LA to SF – the entire point of HSR, let’s remember – would be significant:
Accounting for transfer time in San Jose, the effective speed of the Baby Bullet ride would approach three times slower than a single-seat HSR peninsula ride. The overall trip from LA to SF would increase from 2:38 to 3:15, an increase of about one quarter. If we compromise that much on the peninsula, why even bother with 220 mph in the central valley? Indeed why bother with high speed rail at all?
Which is is of course the entire point of the NIMBY objections from the usual suspects on the Peninsula. Folks like Martin Engel never accepted the public verdict – or even that of their own communities – which voted strongly for Proposition 1A, knowing full well that it involved sending HSR trains along new tracks up the Peninsula. Others on the Peninsula are grasping at straws by suggesting that HSR be held up just for their own personal interests – basically trying to impose a slow order on the entire system.
In an email, Alon Levy wonders if there’s a strategic way to deal with this objection:
Anthony Perl’s book New Departures (http://books.google.com/books?id=-B5NgROwk9wC – look for page 26) writes that the TGV had many detractors in the French government who thought it was an “unaffordable boondoggle.” In response, the SNCF met them halfway: it only built the first LGV two thirds of the way from Paris to Lyon, and routed the line on the traditional line at lower speed for the remaining third. On the one hand initial costs were kept down, but on the other travelers could see for themselves the difference between full high-speed operation and rapid rail. As the SNCF had predicted, this created political pressure to finish the full LGV to Lyon, and then to extend it to other cities.
I wonder whether this solution is applicable to California, if cost concerns and pressure from Peninsula NIMBYs is too much. The high-speed track would initially run only from LA to SJ, with the trains sharing tracks with Caltrain to SF. It would reduce speed remarkably and make HSR less competitive initially, but not critically; it would at the same time showcase the difference between baby bullets and real bullets. It would require FRA waivers, but as far as I can tell so will the ultimate goal of running HSR in the same ROW as Caltrain.
Do you think it’d be an acceptable compromise if political or financial realities started to sour?
In this case Levy is suggesting calling the NIMBY bluff, using the slower speeds on the Peninsula segment as leverage public outrage at the situation to mobilize the political will to push through HSR all the way to San Francisco at a later date, especially if cost issues necessitate some sort of less-than-complete solution.
It’s an interesting concept but I am not convinced it can work. California’s record at filling in gaps in the transportation network is not promising. Although I oppose this project, the 710 freeway gap in Southern California has been a missing link in the system for nearly 40 years. NIMBYs in South Pasadena have had a great deal of success blocking its completion (they also helped influence the design of the Metro Gold Line in a less than ideal way, slowing the trains through that city’s portion of the route). The cost of the Peninsula route isn’t likely to drop anytime soon, and once NIMBY attitudes spread, they have a tendency to get entrenched – the same homeowners stay in their same locations, dominating local politics on the issues. Nobody wants to piss off such a united bloc, so the infrastructure project gets a lower priority.
Another concern is that a non-HSR solution along the Peninsula could sap public confidence in the system itself. It’s already too easy for folks to blithely dismiss any government project as inherently doomed to failure, and to cast trains as terminally slow and inefficient. If, after having promised the public a true high speed train from LA to SF – not from LA to SJ – and we can’t deliver it, then that may cause a loss of political support, not an increase.
It seems to me the best move is to build on the momentum of November 2008 and rally the public against the small-minded NIMBY interests on the Peninsula who want to block the high speed rail project. HSR, even on the Peninsula, provides jobs, sustainable transportation, a cleaner environment, and less carbon emissions. Californians are not going to allow a small group of people to block that effort. Certainly those who live near the tracks need to be treated fairly, but they do not and should not have the power to compromise this project.