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California's bullet train: A fast track to nowhere


I love trains. One of my earliest memories is leaving my small Texas town to move to Nebraska. I sat in the dome car and watched lightning ripple across the night sky. It was beautiful.

I've also ridden the TGV in France; it's breathtakingly smooth and fast, easy to use and relatively inexpensive. It zipped us direct from Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport to downtown Montpellier, in the south of France, in just a few hours, providing great views of the lovely French countryside along the way.

So, as a train lover, let me just say this: California's proposed bullet train is one dumb idea.

This paper's editorial page disagrees. In "California’s high-speed train wreck," it acknowledges the many problems with the project -- and then endorses it anyway.

California's much-vaunted high-speed rail project is, to put it bluntly, a train wreck. Intended to demonstrate the state's commitment to sustainable, cutting-edge transportation systems, and to show that the U.S. can build rail networks as sophisticated as those in Europe and Asia, it is instead a monument to the ways poor planning, mismanagement and political interference can screw up major public works. For anti-government conservatives, it is also a powerful argument for scrapping President Obama's national rail plans, rescinding federal funding and canceling the project before any more money is wasted on it.

We couldn't disagree more.

The editorial goes on to examine the problems and offers solutions. It concludes:

[President] Obama's inspiring vision of a nation crisscrossed by bullet trains, providing cleaner, safer and cheaper competition to airlines and reducing reliance on gas-guzzling automobiles, is in serious jeopardy as a new Republican majority in the House looks to slash his funding plans. In this environment, California is a test case for whether high-speed trains can succeed in the U.S. -- and so far, the state is failing the test.

You think? We've got a $43-billion project that, if left alone, is going to produce a train that initially goes between Borden and Corcoran. Maybe I'm the only one who's challenged in terms of geography, but I'm not sure I can even find those places on a map.

I was thinking of the bullet train's woes when I came upon Barry Goldman's fascinating Sunday Opinion article, "Wasps do it, but why should we?" Turns out scientists have a name for the kind of thinking that's bedeviling the train project: "sphexishness."

As Goldman writes:

It's fun to observe sphexishness in animals. The trick, of course, is to be able to recognize it in ourselves. What behaviors do we humans senselessly repeat over and over because of some unquestioned internal rule? What entirely avoidable loop of stupidity are we stuck in?

And that's it in a nutshell: The train project is stuck in an avoidable loop of stupidity.

Lots of smart people are saying it will work. They say it's visionary. They have studies, and statistics, and projections. They have environmental arguments, and economic arguments. 

I'm not buying it. I think the proponents believe it because, like the wasp in Goldman's article that keeps repeating the behavior even when it doesn't make sense, they want to believe it. I suspect that maybe, just maybe, they love trains.

But the darn thing costs too much. It strains common sense to think that enough people are going to ride it from San Francisco or San Jose to L.A., or Anaheim, or wherever it eventually goes, to make it profitable. You think airlines are going to sit back and watch a train steal their passengers?  If the train charges $200 a trip, you can bet Southwest is going to charge $180. And remember how the very convenient TGV goes right from the airport to its destinations?  Heck, in L.A., we can't even get a light-rail line through to LAX

I know, I know, rail proponents have answers for all of these points, and more.  So does our editorial.

And honestly, as a train lover, I'd like to believe them.

But that Texas train trip I took was almost 50 years ago. And it was the last long-distance train ride I've taken in the United States.

And I'm betting that won't change in my lifetime.


California's high-speed train wreck

High-speed rail hopes are off the tracks

-- Paul Whitefield

Photo: An artist's rendering of the proposed San Jose stop on the planned $43-billion high-speed rail line. Credit: California High-Speed Rail Authority / Bloomberg


Comments () | Archives (3)

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"We've got a $43-billion project that, if left alone, is going to produce a train that initially goes between Borden and Corcoran."

No, it won't. You know, you do your readers a great disservice when you lie to them.

First of all, the line has been funded beyond Corcoran all the way south to Bakersfield.

Second, not a single foot of HSR track will be laid with the current funding. What's happening is the initial rights of way acquisition, grade separation, and other preparations for HSR. If left alone, we'll have improved Amtrak service, not some silly little HSR train that just goes back and forth within the central valley! Don't be absurd.

"You think airlines are going to sit back and watch a train steal their passengers?"

The airlines don't care about short-haul flights. JetBlue's CEO Dave Berger said, "I don’t think we need hundreds of departures every day from the Bay Area to Los Angeles."

Who decided to Publish this?

Because it makes no sense whatsoever.

It is a syllogism.

People support the project because they like trains, their like of trains is the only reason for their support of the project, therefore all conclusions they reach are incorrect. It further assumes that the behavior is mindless and at its root is incorrect and has proven to have been so. His acknowledgment that the TGV works defeats his own argument, that championing HSR is a wasteful and illogical behavior.

One can like something and still maintain a reasonable and fair outlook towards it.

Just like one can hate something and be blinded to any positive aspects it may have.


The train to nowhere argument is one of the most ignorant and mis-informed talking points against high speed rail.

If you are against HSR, argue your views, but repeating the misnomer, train to nowhere is disingenuous. You are the advocates of a train to nowhere. Funding is in place for central valley route and construction will take place.

Even if the critics of HSR succeeded and stopped construction after this segment was completed, it would still represent a major upgrade to our passenger rail network.

Large projects like this must be built in sections. It is not economical nor faster to build the whole length at the same time.

While the author erroneously notes that the route is a train to nowhere, it is in fact still a train between northern and southern California. The reasons to build here first are obvious:
1. it's the longest segment of the rail project
2. it's the cheapest and quickest segment to build
3. it will be the fastest segment of rail providing the largest time benefit.

Ultimately, the central valley segment is the spine of the system and hence the most important part.

The best analogy for the train to nowhere criticism for high way construction would be to start building all the onramps first to a dirt country road, then built the highway later. We all know that is idiotic.

This author and many others fail to see that HSR supplements our transit infrastructure. SFO and LAX (both stops on HSR) will benefit because HSR will be a massive feeder to the airports for longer haul travel. The highly inefficient and infrequent regional jets to the central valley will no longer be needed as the train would provide a more frequent and comfortable connection to the airport.

Airports would free up many landing slots that are currently wasted on small jets between north and south california. This would substantially reduce airline delays and also allow the airlines to focus on longer more profitable flights.

HSR is a critical part of a true integrated transit network that include airplanes, buses and even cars.



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The Opinion L.A. blog is the work of Los Angeles Times Editorial Board membersNicholas Goldberg, Robert Greene, Carla Hall, Jon Healey, Sandra Hernandez, Karin Klein, Michael McGough, Jim Newton and Dan Turner. Columnists Patt Morrison and Doyle McManus also write for the blog, as do Letters editor Paul Thornton, copy chief Paul Whitefield and senior web producer Alexandra Le Tellier.

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