A Ride on the San Joaquins Shows Need for HSR
Joe Mathews is one of my favorite writers on California issues. I find myself disagreeing with him more often than I agree, but he comes from a good and well-meaning place, even if that place is a bit too center-right for my taste. His column today about a trip he took on the Amtrak San Joaquins with his young son is one of the reasons I like his writing, even if it also induces me to write corrections.
I won’t quote the details of the trip, though the journey was quite pleasant. I am glad he understood that the occasional delays he experienced on the tracks weren’t Amtrak California’s fault, but the fault of the freight railroads that own the tracks. And more importantly, he drew the correct conclusion from that situation:
Why are we still relying on single tracks owned by freight lines to move passengers on trains through the Central Valley? I’ve dumped on high-speed rail for years—for outlandish ridership projections, for its failure to attract private investment, for not starting with a connection between L.A. and San Diego—and even the idea’s backers are worried it will cost too much. But high-speed rail does provide solutions to the gaps Ben and I encountered firsthand. It would provide a proper route for rail passengers through the Tehachapis. It would provide a dedicated track for passenger rail in the Central Valley. And it would connect the state in ways that we have otherwise failed to do.
First, the corrections. The ridership projections aren’t outlandish, they are in line with routes serving similar populations in Europe. It hasn’t “failed” to attract private investment, the Authority has not asked private investors to put up any money yet. Besides, do we really want a lot of private investment and the problems it can bring? A connection between LA and SD is a good idea, but that corridor already boasts the nation’s second most popular rail line, the (totally awesome) Pacific Surfliners.
But that aside, Mathews totally nails the case for HSR. It provides a dedicated, fast passenger rail route where none currently exists. There is demand for it – he mentions that Bakersfield is one of the top 25 busiest stations in the national Amtrak system – and it will provide important connections for the people of California. Mathews agrees that the demand is there, and that more capacity is needed:
However you feel about high-speed rail (and I’m still skeptical), California is undeniably a state in need of more rail capacity. On the flight back to Burbank from Sacramento the following evening, Ben began lobbying for a second train trip, this time with his 2-year-old brother. That increased capacity can’t come soon enough.
So while I still take issue with his criticisms of the HSR project, I am very glad to see that he is in agreement with the basic reasons why that project exists: Californians want to ride trains but we don’t provide them enough opportunities to do so.
I count it as a win.