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California's bullet train: A fast track to nowhere

May 16, 2011 |  1:30 pm

Train

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.

RELATED:

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

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