High Speed Rail As Economic Recovery

Aug 12th, 2010 | Posted by

Richard Florida is out with a new article in The New Republic about high speed rail’s role in the 21st century economy titled “The Roadmap to a High Speed Recovery”. In it, Florida returns to an argument he’s made before, that HSR is essential to a 21st century economy. But here he lays it out in very clear and compelling detail.

Florida’s arguments deserve to be read in their entirety at TNR, but here’s the basic points:

the key to understanding America’s historic ability to respond to great economic crises lies in what economic geographers call the “spatial fix”—the creation of new development patterns, new ways of living and working, and new economic landscapes that simultaneously expand space and intensify our use of it. Our rebound after the panic of 1873 and long downturn was forged by the transition from an agricultural nation to an urban-industrial one organized around great cities. Our recovery from the Great Depression saw the rise of massive metropolitan complexes of cities and suburbs, which again intensified and expanded our use of space. Renewed prosperity hinges on the rise of yet another even more massive and more intensive geographic pattern—the mega-region. These new geographic entities are larger than the sum of their parts; they not only produce but consume, spurring further demand.

What Florida is saying here is not at all new. He is repeating arguments that historians and geographers have made for decades: that an economy is inextricably linked to the spatial forms it takes, and that major economic changes are accompanied by changes in humanity’s built environment. And historians and geographers have often understood the role that canals played in the early 19th century economy, that railroads played in the recovery from the Long Depression, that freeways and dams and bridges played in the recovery from the Great Depression.

But Florida has specific reasons why he thinks it’s high speed rail that will be the foundational piece of the recovery from the Great Recession:

As Jane Jacobs identified and the Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Lucas later formalized, clustering speeds the transmission of new ideas, increases the underlying productivity of people and firms, and generates the diversity required for new ideas to fertilize and turn into new innovations and new industries…

It’s now time to invest in infrastructure that can undergird another round of growth and development. Part of that is surely a better and faster information highway. But the real fix must extend beyond the cyber-economy to our physical development patterns—the landscape of the real economy.

Florida’s point is that innovation requires “clustering.” But the 20th century form of clustering – based on the automobile and oil consumption – has failed. It has led to malinvestment, unaffordable costs, and is choking cities with traffic that causes people to waste time and waste money.

Florida argues instead that we are already seeing the emergence of a “mega-region,” and that Americans are already moving away from dependence on the automobile and cars. He’s not saying everyone will live in skyscrapers in downtown San Francisco, or that nobody will drive. Instead his point is that as mega-regions emerge – large metropolitan areas that don’t sprawl together, but act more like beads on a necklace – only high speed rail can provide the physical connectivity that is needed to allow a mega-region to thrive.

Some react to this by arguing that everyone will just telecommute – even though many employers refuse to do this even though it’s perfectly workable right now (I telecommute, after all, and work for an organization that has no physical office). Others claim we’ll drive electric cars, even though that doesn’t explain how we solve the traffic problem, the long commute problem, or the shift away from driving that’s being caused by a desire to be connected to our digital devices.

As we know, still others will react by raging against the inevitable change, trying to force a prolonging of a failed status quo by destroying in the cradle the infrastructure that will enable the 21st century economic recovery to emerge. This is what explains the opposition in places like the Peninsula to high speed rail. As we’ve seen, Peninsula NIMBYs and other HSR critics all share the view that the 20th century model of urban geography – where everyone gets around by automobile – is not only still workable, but is the pinnacle of human achievement and anything else is a horrible destruction of their quality of life.

Florida’s article helps explain why that view is so deeply flawed and indefensible. Neither he nor I are saying that, for example, Palo Alto should be rebuilt to resemble Manhattan. But in the 21st century economy, a high speed rail system is going to be essential to economic recovery and prosperity by providing an affordable way for people to “cluster” – to share ideas, create, and innovate – while making the most of 21st century technologies that you can’t use while sitting behind a wheel.

In this way, city councils like Belmont that are threatening to oppose the high speed rail project are doing an enormous disservice to their residents. PCC members who are up in arms about the alignments are missing the big picture. Convinced – quite incorrectly, as their friends across the bay in Albany and Rockridge would tell them – than an aerial structure would doom their property values, they’re willing to blow up the HSR project and their cities’ future prosperity just to appease a small but loud group of people who are clinging to a 20th century model of urbanity that has failed – without realizing that, with small adjustments and adaptations, they can improve their city while leaving most of its built environment as-is.

Richard Florida has often spoken in Silicon Valley about how cities can plan for and thrive in the 21st century economy. Next time he’s out here, perhaps he can head up the Peninsula and help explain to the PCC cities that they have better things to do for their constituents and their futures than threaten the HSR project.

  1. Alon Levy
    Aug 12th, 2010 at 23:07

    Richard Florida has said many things, of which most are crap. See for example Sean Safford’s two critiques.

    On the subject of HSR, Florida is just not convincing. So far, studies on HSR’s effect on provincial cities are mixed. In Korea, separate studies have argued both that the KTX has helped Daejeon and Daegu and that it has hurt them while favoring Seoul. In Japan, the Shinkansen has helped define a Tokaido-Sanyo megaregion, but done nothing for the Tohoku and Shin’etsu regions; in Niigata, some business groups blame the city’s decline on the fact that Tokyo-area vacationers no longer need to stay overnight. Contrary to what Florida says, good regional economies do not need HSR, and HSR does not always make for a good regional economy.

    I do not know any studies about HSR’s overall effects on the primate city. But for what it’s worth, Paris is not doing any better than London and New York, and Madrid and Rome haven’t done any better in the current recession than Los Angeles.

    Global cities can in fact be completely disconnected from an immediate hinterland, as Singapore is and as Hong Kong was until the last few years. Those cities eschewed a strong hinterland in favor of developing themselves, and became first-world oases in third-world regions.

    There is a serious problem with selling HSR as more than good transportation, which is that many of its other purported benefits are in fact direct consequences of transportation value. HSR creates real estate development near stations, but this should not be confused with creating economic development in an entire region. It is greener than the alternatives, but this should not be confused with actual green policies such as conservation, local mass transit, and green energy. And it looks slick and modern, but it should not be confused with economic modernization.

    Drunk Engineer Reply:

    +1 what Alon wrote.

    Further, it is unlikely Jane Jacobs would be in favor of CHSR project in its current form. She got her start opposing Robert Moses plans to blast highways through the middle of cities. She would look too kindly on the idea of 60′ aerials running through the middle of Fresno.

    I also note that the concept of the Meglopolis is not new — planners talked about this back in Jacob’s time. She didn’t care for the concept then. It is unlikely she would see much point in spending billion of taxpayer money to convert Palmdale into LA commuter suburb, or spurring development in ex-urban Gilroy and Los Banos.

    Robert Cruickshank Reply:

    She didn’t oppose the highways because they were above-grade, she opposed them because they destroyed existing neighborhoods – which the HSR project will NOT do no matter which vertical alignment (aerial, trench, or tunnel) is chosen.

    As I have argued elsewhere, there is a big difference between highways and railroads. The former divides cities and destroys neighborhoods, the latter can unite cities and bring together neighborhoods, as in Albany and Rockridge.

    Peter Reply:

    I’m not sure whether I agree with you that highways and railroads differ in their effects on dividing neighborhoods. If you build a brand-new alignment through an existing neighborhood with crappy access between the two sides, then I’d argue that is destructive to the neighborhood, no matter whether it is a railroad or a highway.

    However, given that HSR will be along an already-existing alignment without encroaching much at all beyond the current ROW boundaries, WHILE IMPROVING ACCESS BETWEEN THE SIDES OF THE ROW (!!!) through grade separation, it will not be destructive to the neighborhood.

    Robert Cruickshank Reply:

    You’re totally right – I meant to include that important qualifier. Yes, it matters a great deal if we’re plowing through a neighborhood on a totally new alignment or, in the case of HSR, following an existing ROW.

    That is the difference I was getting at.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Jacobs would probably oppose HSR in any case; she was against megaprojects, believing they did not promote economic development. Toward the end of her life, she started pooh-poohing large public transit schemes, too, saying that it’s more important to help neighborhoods start their own jitney services.

    Evan Reply:

    Hmm…add two tracks to an existing railroad right-of-way that has space for more tracks in 88 percent of the ROW and runs through existing downtowns, offering cheaper construction, more convenient, easier living near the stations and more interoperabillity. Or…built over the highways, costing much more and likely introducing massive traffic delays for years.

    Yeah, tough decision. You’re right.

  2. Observer
    Aug 13th, 2010 at 00:07

    Look, when someone tells you who they are believe them. Period. And Roberts telling you now.
    For Robert, and his master Wunderlick, this whole fucking thing is about redevelopment, not HSR. How to best pry open the legs of the most valuable real estate in California – because the gravy train in central valley has dried up. The beauty here is that THIS train “MUST” run straight through the middle of all the most valuable real estate from SF to LA Right? No other options, no matter how bad if fucks up the thing that these communities need most which is working local transportation – Caltrain. Does anyone with half a brain on this blog ask themselves really why HSR its not running over the freeways but has to run through mile upon miles of backyards, school yards and downtowns. Is it really because these tiny little down towns are going to product hundreds of thousands of riders who suddenly need to commute to LA? Get a fucking clue.

    101 is less than a mile from the row – through ALL the same cities, much more accessible, much more central, much better connectivity to all manner of transportation to draw from MILES around all potential station, and much less damaging to every single community. And cost – REALLY? Did they ever show you the cost of rebuilding every overpass from SF to SJ? They didn’t, but if they did, it would show you nowhere NEAR the cost of ruining what they will ruin THROUGH THE GUTS of the Peninsula. Its just so simple – Freeway adjacent property not as valuable for redevelopment purposes.

    Lets damage wide swaths of high value real estate, capture it with eminent domain, buy it for pennies on the dollar and build it all back up with dense development, where no such thing would EVER EVER be considered or feasible otherwise. Beauty is – all in the name of the environement. All you train foamers are nothing but pawns here. As well as the poor ditch digging laborers who they’re leading to believe this is about jobs. Of COURSE they don’t care about ridership, curves, gobbing up station throats, the money to get the thing done right for the communities, or reducing impacts or any other bit of it.

    rafael Reply:

    Let’s stand this argument on its head: you’re claiming that “the most valuable real estate in California” is absolutely sacrosanct and that everyone else will just have to take some mode of transportation around it – forever. What you fail to mention is that the railroad right of way is public property (owned by SF, SM and SC counties). Public property, by definition, is not protected against development in the interest of the general public. If you bought property near or adjacent to the railroad at inflated prices, that’s not anyone else’s fault.

    You go on to claim that HSR proponents are advocating the system be used for “commuting” from the Bay Area to LA, i.e. daily trips between residences and places of employment. No-one has ever made that claim since very few people will spend well over $100 every day to spend 5+ hours getting to and returning from the office. Even in Richard Florida’s worlds of “mega-regions”, NorCal and SoCal are distinct. Connecting them is expected to substantially increase passenger transportation volume between these regions, but fare management will ensure that only a small fraction of that will be long-distance commuting between affordable housing in the Central Valley and the Bay Area or LA basin, respectively. Much of it will be for business travel and for tourism, though many trips will likely be made by California residents simply visiting their family and loved ones.

    Also, you are claiming that HSR construction in the SF peninsula will entail massive eminent domain takings for “pennies on the dollar” for the express purpose of new development. This is also nonsense, the peninsula corridor is wide enough for four tracks in almost all places. Where it isn’t and an amicable transaction cannot be negotiated, the county-level transportation authorities may indeed decide to exercise partial ED against a small number of properties directly abutting the railroad right of way. That’s it. Any talk of widespread reverse condemnation litigation is just that – talk. Plaintiffs would need to prove that railroad construction and subsequent operations would render their buildings unsuitable for their current purpose, a very high burden of proof.

    Matthew Reply:

    My primary interest in this system is to travel between my parents’ place in SoCal to my sister’s place in SF. I’m fed up with flying, and am looking forward to something that is more comfortable, cheaper, faster, and environmentally friendly. A secondary interest of mine is in seeing more of California that I don’t have the chance to see when flying between LA and SF. With frequent train service, I would gladly spend a few hours visiting one of the cities in between, discovering a new restaurant or two that uses fresh Central California ingredients, Castroville artichoke, or Gilroy garlic. Trips like I would take don’t encourage sprawl. Instead, I would dump less jet exhaust into the air, not have to drive to the airport, and would support businesses near the train stations.

    TomW Reply:

    “Observer”: please don’t swear. Most HSR opponents and supporters are capable of voicing their opinions with resorting to vulgar language, so tere’s no reason why you can’t too.

    Ben Reply:

    Observer– with all due respect, what are you talking about? Nobody wants to develop around the tracks. The development will be concentrated within ¼ to ½ mile of the planned stations, not randomly surrounding the alignment. This is no different than highways, where development isn’t located evenly along the right-of-way of the highways but concentrated along the highway entrances/exits. Additionally, by concentrating dense development with limited parking within this ¼ to ½ mile radius around the stations, it will protect existing single-family homes elsewhere along the route from redevelopment pressure.

    Encouraging billions of dollars in office and residential development around the immediate vicinity of the stations and encouraging the development of walkable communities, similar to what is found in the Rosslyn – Ballston corridor of Northern Virginia (http://www.dullescorridorrail.com/pdf/TOD_Leach_ArlCo.pdf ) is one of the many benefits of this project—not some grand conspiracy. Many existing businesses located within this ½ mile radius of the planned stations will make rational decisions to sell their more valuable property and relocate, such as now happening with auto dealerships in Tysons Corner, VA (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/16/AR2010071605537.html) . This is the efficient working of the free-market, not some heavy-handed government conspiracy. Like the alleged conspiracy that bike-sharing is some UN-inspired plot (http://www.denverpost.com/election2010/ci_15673894), your fears have little basis in reality.

    YesonHSR Reply:

    It is nothing more than overblow suburbs..stop the nimby act of ruining a”Yosemite” AT worst it will look like BART and please dont act Rockridge and everywere else is ugly and “ruined” compared to PA and MelnoPark

    YesonHSR Reply:

    To show how out of control all this nonsense is ..Belmont were the damm train line already is elevated wants also to have now a new trench..that portion is one of the newest sedctions on the Caltrain line!

    Robert Cruickshank Reply:

    The Peninsula already has a passenger railroad operating through its city centers. Every single city on the Peninsula grew up around the railroad.

    THAT is why arguments like yours have no merit whatsoever. Peninsula NIMBYs aren’t arguing against a future HSR project, they’re arguing against over 130 years of history.

    synonymouse Reply:

    Opserver is absolutely, totally correct. Growth-mongering is the overweaning theme of the CHSRA scheme. The Palmdale caper is a dead giveaway. The establishment that runs California(our uniparty version of the Mexican PRI-Scwarzie and Pelosi are interchangeable)envisions population growth ad infinitum and ad nauseum. But I hang my head in shame at my own abject stupidity at having taken the anything to hang some catenary hook and voted for this turkey.

    Peter Reply:


    … What does that even MEAN?!?!

    synonymouse Reply:

    dunno know exactly but I like the sound of it. Just practicing my “spinning” must to try to catch up with you professionals.

    There is no comparison between current Caltrain and the Embarcadero Freeway that PB-Bechtel intends to impose on the Peninsula. Sorry, those smart, rich people who live in Atherton, etc, are immune to the bs. You are trying to push around people who aren’t pushovers. They aren’t likely to be bullied by the likes of Kopp and Diridon.

    But I still think they are likely to more or less lose out in the end because they are aiming way too low to prevail. They are going to have to swallow their liberal inclinations and ally with statewide Jarvisites and find the money to get a re-vote on the ballot.

    John Reply:


    Lets see.. the 101 to 85 interchange was recently rebuilt… it cost $136.8 million


    you still think that “the cost of rebuilding every overpass from SF to SJ” would be cheaper than using an existing ROW? Really?

    thatbruce Reply:

    The ‘Central Expressway’ would appear to be far more central to most of the Peninsula cities than the 101. Surprisingly, this road runs parallel to the existing and in-use rail line which is essentially going to be upgraded to support HSR. This includes reusing the existing station sites and associated parking lots where applicable, rather than constructing new station sites and associated parking lots along the 101.

    mike Reply:


    If the Peninsula wants HSR up 101, why did the San Mateo and Santa Clara county governments never approach CHSRA and tell them that they should encroach on 101 and will receive the counties full support in doing so? There are only two reasonably straight transportation corridors on the Peninsula – Caltrain ROW and 101, and only one of them has empty space (Caltrain ROW). It’s obvious that the Caltrain ROW must be chosen unless the counties express a clear desire for encroaching on 101 instead. Why haven’t they?

    Peter Reply:

    Because he’s selective in what he “observes”.

    He also somehow thinks that HSR will exercise eminent domain over vast swathes of property along the Peninsula, when it will actually be shoehorned in to the existing ROW with VERY few exceptions where it may need to take a few feet from someone’s backyard. Like I’ve said before, he’s not a very observant Observer.

  3. rafael
    Aug 13th, 2010 at 04:56

    Richard Florida’s hypothesis is that the US workforce of the future will increasingly consist of entrepreneurs in software development as well as brand-new industries. He further asserts that ideas, people and, perhaps to a lesser extent, must travel faster over medium distances than is currently possible. In conclusion, he asserts that HSR would be the ideal complement to the internet in pursuit of this macroeconomic shift.

    Software development is already global, even small start-ups are outsourcing components to freelance contractors half-way around the world these days. HSR would permit software developers in the US to get some work done while they are traveling around e.g. California, including on trips that are unrelated to work. It is precisely because of the internet (incl. the ubiquitous availability of secure VPN connections) that software entrepreneurs are not tied to conventional 9-to-5 hours in office cubicles. Their professional and personal lives tend to be more interleaved, so they write code, fix bugs and deal with administrative issues whenever and wherever they can squeeze it in. Relative to driving and flying, HSR has the advantage in that it provides significant contiguous blocks of time for productive work during travel.

    Finance, sales and marketing staff would also benefit from this advantage, though a greater proportion of their trips would presumably be to investors, partners, events or customers. That said, a group of marketing specialists might well be wary of collaborating on ideas and plans on board a train that may also be transporting their competitors to e.g. a trade show. The success of this model would depend on the level of visual, aural and electronic information privacy afforded by the interior layout of the carriages.

    Arguably the biggest flaw in Florida’s article is that he fails to spell out just what the next Schumpeterian wave of innovation, i.e. those brand-new industries, are likely to be. Green technology may be a good candidate, but much of it is capital-intensive and therefore not nearly as well-suited to his concept of large numbers of self-employed consultants and small-scale start-ups. If history is any guide, capital-intensive industries tend to grow more slowly but to much larger sizes than labor-intensive ones like software development. The R&D divisions of the former may initially be remote from the manufacturing sites but eventually, that is where they tend to end up because new designs need to be tested. The snag is that in a globalized economy, even high-tech manufacturing tends to happen wherever business face the lowest unit costs and least stringent environmental regulations. Skilled workers are increasingly mobile these days, college graduates will move to another country if the work and compensation is attractive.

    TomW Reply:

    I don’t think Florida is trying to predict what the new wave of industry will be. Rather, he is just saying that the improved transportation links will enable new industries. Virtually all buisnesses like to be close to their customers (where “close” is measured in travel time). As every buinsess both buys and sells, it ends being clsoe to its suppliers too. This is true for manufacturing and the service sector.

    Here’s my problem with videoconfercing: very often at the meetings I go to we end up drawing diagrams/flow charts/maps in a communal way. I have yet to find a way to do that as easily online as with a a big piece of paper, a bunch of pens and several people together in a room.

  4. Peter
    Aug 13th, 2010 at 10:14

    OT. The contractor (one of them?) building the temporary station at Santa Clara, in his infinite wisdom, paved over one of the shoofly tracks that is meant to go into operation for Monday morning. Smooth. They now have Saturday and Sunday to connect the regular southbound track to the southbound shoofly track, AND rip up and redo the paving (and maybe rip out and relay that portion of the shoofly, as well).

  5. Caelestor
    Aug 13th, 2010 at 11:17

    Yeah, I disagree with this article. See the Transport Politic for a rebuttal to Richard Florida’s argument. There are 3 major benefits to HSR, and helping sustain the megaregion model is not one of them:

    1. New, faster access between the CV, Norcal, and Socal
    2. Reduction of car/air traffic and congestion relief
    3. Social benefits, the least visible aspect: Allowing people to use their commute time for other purposes such as rest and work (you can’t do that on the car, and your options are limited in the air).

    If you want higher density, build subways and commuter rail, create new bus routes, and allow for walkable/bikeable TODS.

    P.S. Why is there money for capital construction but always a shortfall for operations? Private sector analogy: why would you keep expanding your business if you have money . (Not saying that we need to redirect construction money to fill in the budget gaps, but there really needs to be a rearrangement of priorities regarding distribution of funds.)

    Daniel Krause Reply:

    Building HSR will also cause cities with stations to actually start considering constructing connecting rail and high quality bus transportation that does not exist now. I disagree with Tranport Politic on this. Yonah is falling into the trap of short term thinking, which sees HSR in competition with local transit. I assert this is a false competition. HSR is the skeletal structure to a new way of living. As the Interstate freeway system was laid down, cities and towns all over America began orienting their local investments towards the new interstate. The point is, the Interstates were a catalyst for numerous local road and parkway projects, as well as the associated sprawl development. HSR will do the same thing. Once it is in a city, say like Fresno, you can bet it won’t be long before planners will start to plan and implement light-rail or BRT. Further these local transit investments, based on the original rationale of connecting with HSR, will lead to TOD all over the place, not just at the HSR station.

    Peter Reply:

    The only way in which HSR competes with local transit is for funding.

    Peninsula Rail 2010 Reply:

    BINGO! — but funding is everything. With enough funding, you could build anything. As HSR tries to carve out its piece of the federal transportation budget, local and regional transit agencies will feel the pinch on what they consider to be their piece of the federal pie. The only way to avoid war is to grow the federal pie, but that’s far from easy. Expect war between local transit interests and intercity HSR interests, but this also explains why LA-Anaheim and SF-SJ are first in line for HSR funding.

    I’ll take the bet that Fresno will build massive parking lots long before they build light rail or BRT just because of HSR. Actually, some 5000 new parking spots are already planned by PB, but I haven’t seen any of that $1B in “supporting transit” funds go to Fresno.

    Peter Reply:

    But who all has asked for “supporting transit” funds. Other than the $5 million supposed to go to the OAC, I haven’t heard of any other such funding being doled out.

    StevieB Reply:

    Did the CAHRA approve the Station Area Policy offering 20% matching funds for local planning at HST Station Areas that was presented at the August meeting?

    Elizabeth Reply:

    no. They decided to circulate it among the cities for another month before adopting.

    Emma Reply:

    Exactly! We have to grow the federal pie. Federal funding for the extension of public transit is more than poor and the Governor doesn’t mind to slash any funding for public transit.

    Emma Reply:

    But I have to say that the stimulus funds are coming in. At least here in San Diego. A new fleet, trolley extension and station upgrades will be finished before we see any high speed rail running between SF and Anaheim.

    Daniel Krause Reply:

    The real compitetion is funding between 21 century infrastructure and 20th century infrastructure. It drives me crazy when advocates attach another form of public transportation funding instead of focusing on the highway money. For example, HSR funding is likely to be cut down to $1B for the 2011 annual approriation from 2010’s $2.5B, while highways will likely see an increase an increase from last year of $4B. Just think if that extra $4B were applied to mass transit. The highway boys have us divided and conquered I am afraid.

    Robert Cruickshank Reply:

    Exactly. We must not play a rigged game – if the choice is presented to us as “build high speed trains or operate buses” we need to reject that choice and instead demand that money come from unnecessary road projects, like that insane $4 billion plan to widen Interstate 5 in San Diego County.

    Peter Reply:

    So, how do we go about getting that choice?

    Richard Mlynarik Reply:

    No question the bad guys are smarter than your average transit advocate. So are rocks.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    HSR and local transit do not compete for funds. The federal grants come out of separate piles, and other than a few pro-transit conservative critics of HSR, nobody has seriously suggested spending money on one instead of the other.

    Now, there’s a completely different position, supported by many transportation experts, which is that HSR will not succeed without local transit. This is not the same as saying HSR and local transit compete for money and local transit should win.

  6. Al-Fakh Yugoudh
    Aug 13th, 2010 at 13:49

    The only way to have a US101 alignment would be to eliminate the two central lanes in each direction, and that still doesn’t address some of the curves. That is not going to happen and above all it would encounter major opposition by daily car commuters who would see the traffic greatly increase on 101 due to the loss of 2 lanes.

    Frankly if the problem is an elevated rail line along the existing Caltrain ROW, then why not build the HSR at grade level. Obviously all grade crossing would be closed and fenced and new street overpasses (or underpasses) would need to be built in correspondence of the existing grade crossing (or at least for the main streets). I bet this solution would be even cheaper than both aerial structure or tunnel, and might even permit construction without interruption of the current Caltrain commute service.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    They are going to build much of it at grade. The elevated sections are in the places where the better alternative is to build some sort of structure.

    YesonHSR Reply:

    The little dears dont want at grade..even thou its like this now and has been for 140 years..they dont want the streets to dip..they dont want any trains to be seen..they are now whining that a open trench is not enough..it just has to be a tunnel with a park on top !! to replace of course that bad railroad they moved next to

    synonymouse Reply:

    There’s no way PB-Bechtel wants their project at grade. They wouldn’t have inflamed the Peninsula with their berm offensive if they didn’t mean it. I don’t the Peninsula people believe for one moment that any talk about surface or trench is anything but blarney. Nimbys are smarter than foamers at least in the sense that the former know that PB fully intends to ram aerials down their throat.

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    Touchy, touchy. . .

    Excuse me, but explain to me how trenches and surface running are better.

    Grade seperation is needed at the speeds involved, and good even at much lower speeds, unless you are willing to close a bunch of cross streets.

    Trenches cost more and would seem to have potential drainage problems.

    Tunnels have the same potential drainage problems and cost even more than trenches.

    Why you need grade seperation:



    Spokker Reply:

    Haha I love the Surfliner one.

    Those intersections, especially the rural-looking one, will probably never be grade separated.

    Not every intersection needs to be grade separated on every rail line. Some communities prefer at-grade rail, crossings and all, for its ability to be integrated into the neighborhood more organically.


    This station would not look as appealing if it were grade separated.

    That being said, this line’s top speed is 55 MPH, not 110. While the California system should remain at-grade as much as possible, there will be elevated portions and grade separations. If those aren’t acceptable than the project is simply not happening.

    Spokker Reply:

    Forgot to add, freaking out about the occasional idiot who can’t behave around trains is no reason to say, “This is why you need grade separation.” A train blowing through a level crossing at 79 MPH is generally safe.

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    Oh, man, you don’t know how much I agree with you! Grade crossings are perhaps one of the best ways to actually prove Darwinism in action! I should know, I’ve a number of close calls and a real hit or two, thankfully without fatalities. Unfortuantely, your top speed is limited to something like that 79 mph now by federal regulation, so if you want your high speed operation, you have to seperate the opposing traffic as much as possible.

    It used to be different with class A 4-4-2s and F7 4-6-4s on the Hiawathas, but that was a while back.

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    !!@#$%^&&!! No edit function again!!

    I’ve seen some close calls and a hit or two. . .have the sense not to be on the tracks when a train is anywhere around!

    I think you’ll like this spoof from Britain:


    Alon Levy Reply:

    The grade crossing regulations only start kicking in at 110 mph. Up to 110, the rules are the same at all speeds: grade crossings are allowed, but the train has to blare its horn unless there’s a quad gate.

    Where separating traffic is useful is with capacity more than speed. At very high traffic levels, on the order of 10+ tph for a mainline train, the crossing road would be closed for most of rush hour.

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    Thanks for the correction, it was for some reason that I thought a grade crossing was limiting a section of Amtrak’s line in Maryland to 80 or so years ago; this was supposedly the last crossing in the New York-Washington corridor.

    Your comment about horn-blowing at speed reminded me of a description of operations on the Atlantic City Railroad (Reading Company subsidiary line to Atlantic City prior to merger into the Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines, or PRSL, in 1933, jointly owned and operated with the Pennsylvania). Supposedly, it was quite an aural show for a kid in church on a Sunday in Camden, N.J., as steam-powered trains came out of a stub station and began accelerating rapidly as they crossed streets at every block, the intervals between crossing signals growing shorter as they grew louder , until the whistle was wailing continuously as the train howled right past the church at almost 80, drowning out the pastor and shaking the building! For some reason, the man who recollected this from his childhood said always enjoyed this break in the service. I wonder why this was so? :-)

    I would love to give such a show to the NIMBYs! Either they would welcome real HSR after that, or they would want to see steam back!

    I wouldn’t complain at either one!

    It’s funny, I very often feel that I live in the wrong time, which isn’t too unusual, other people say this as well–except that I’ve had people from outside tell me so! And Alon, what made you think I was on the high end of the in-between age?

    Alon Levy Reply:

    You’d sometimes tell anecdotes about the steam era that sound like they come from personal experience – for example, the story of the woman who didn’t know steam trains burned coal. So I’d assumed that you’d come of age sometime in the late 1930s or in the 1940s.

    Personally, I’d hate to live right next to a grade crossing with horns this loud. So do most people; that’s why it’s important to have quiet zones and quieter trains. A hundred years ago I’d also have said it’s important to have less polluting trains, but nowadays with electrification it’s a solved problem.

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    Alon, some of them are from personal experience; the steam era isn’t quite totally dead yet!

    Two steam heritage roads, the narrow-gauge East Broad Top Railroad & Coal Company and the standard-gauge Western Maryland Scenic Railroad, are only 90 minutes from my house. The Gettysburg Railroad used to run steam out of Gettysburg, Pa., and that is but 90 minutes away as well. The Strasburg Rail Road (its corporate name has Rail Road as two words, as does the famous commuter line Long Island Rail Road in New York), is only three hours away; Steamtown National Historic Site is four hours away. The mountain climbing, geared-engine-powered Cass Scenic is about 5 hours away. There are also three trolley museums within 2 hours (one of which meets the steam trains of the East Broad Top), a world class railroad musuem with occasional steam operation in Baltimore (B&O Railroad Museum), and the Smisthsonian in Washington has a significant rail exhibit as well. Going slightly further afield to my home city of Wheeling, W.Va., where both my wife and I still have a few living relatives, puts me in reach of the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum at Washington, Pa., which is notable in recent years for going into solar power to at least partially power its preserved cars and repair shop. Talk about a merger between past and future technology!

    I’ve also had the opportunity to ride a very few main line excursions, including one in 1977 that mimicked a ride up the Hudson in the 1920s in that we were running on the yellow block signals of another train, the signals falling to clear just before we hit them, and the marker lamps on the caboose (still in use in 1977) of the freight that was ahead of us visible a couple of miles ahead as we swept along a great curve along the banks of the Kanawha River in deep twilight. Later on the same trip, we were easily outrunning tractor-trailer rigs on the West Virginia Turnpike between Cabin Creek and Kanawha City (just outside of Charleston, the state capitol).

    I had the priviledge to help very, very slightly with a steam locomotive restoration in a roundhouse in Hagerstown, Md. (I spent an hour or two holding a sledge hammer on a stubborn bolt as a striking target for another man with another sledge to hit, to get the bolt out), and I later had the chance to visit another engine in the same roundhouse just after it had arrived from a month-long series of tests in January of 1985 in West Virginia as part of a research effort that considered the possibility of a steam revival for freight service in response to oil prices, and noting the engine’s coat of winter dirt (this was an engine that had just come back from a month of hauling coal trains), the icicles hanging from its running gear in the cold house, and noting how the general design of this late model coal burning locomotive, built by Lima-Hamilton in 1948, looked right at home with contemporary diesels, and actually looked more modern than the 1947-vintage streamlined diesel (there were still a precious few of those running then, too) that was in the next stall!

    Have you had the chance to actually get around steam yourself, either as a rider on an excursion or a tourist or heritage road, or even as just someone at trackside when such an excursion rolls by? If not, I hope you do–seeing and hearing one of these engines hot and in action really drives home that these inanimate objects wonderfully act as if they are alive, and explains why they were called iron horses.

    About my comment about the NIMBYs maybe liking steam; that was inspired by a tale told to me by a young father about 5 or 10 years ago, who took his then 5-year old son to a drag race in Hagerstown, and also on another day, to the Strasburg Rail Road.

    This father told me his boy had been afraid of the dragsters; he asked his father, “Daddy, why are those cars so angry?” Of course, if you know what a drag racer sounds like, you know where this boy was coming from.

    On the later trip to Strasburg, the boy was mesmerized by SRR No. 90, which is the biggest engine the line operates. The black locomotive, medium-sized as steam engines go but still incredibly larger than any automobile, and at least as loud as the dragsters, had a far different personality–his father described it as panting (air compressor) like a big, friendly horse, and similarly its movements were deliberate and graceful, not jerky, again imitating a very large living creature, and the boy responded to it in that fashion. The locomotive was “friendly,” and the boy was unafraid.

    Other stories have come from contacts in the steam business, and that included the story about the woman who didn’t know steamers were coal eaters (at least in the east), by a conductor on the Cass Scenic. And others are first-hand, such as another woman who tried to explain to her son about the steering wheel (hand brake) and gas pedal (air whistle) in a trolley car at the Pennsylvania Trolley Musuem.

    Maybe I do live in something of a time warp; certainly the experiences and things I have seen are not typical of most people of today.

    At the same time, I’ve got to admit my wife tells me I lie about my age. She says I am not 55 years old, but 155 years old! She says only someone that old would know some of the things I know!

    Hope you’ve like them anyway, and I hope you get to see some of this yourself. Oh, that reminds me–a road out in your state, the Sierra Railway (actually Railtown 1897 State Park in Jamestown, Ca.) recently returned Sierra Railway No. 3 to service. This is for us a very famous steamer, built by the Rogers Locomotive Works in 1891, and used in many movie and television productions over the years, including “High Noon,” “Petticoat Junction” (title sequences) and the Clint Eastwood Western, “Unforgiven,” along with many others, while the railroad itself and other steam engines on its roster have been used in other films, going as far back as an adaptation of “The Virginian” in the late 1920s, “Dodge City” in 1939, “Go West,” also in the late 1930s (this is a Marx Brothers comedy, with the wildest railroad sequence I’ve ever seen on film), and “Bound for Glory” (1970s), about Woody Guthrie in the 1930s.

  7. D. P. Lubic
    Aug 13th, 2010 at 21:36

    From National Association of Railroad Passengers, current Hotline News, note ridership figures:


    For reference, National Corridors site (note newsletter, named “Destination: Freedom”)



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