What Naysayers Don’t Get About California’s High Speed Train


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Earlier this month, workers in Fresno broke ground on what was, by all accounts, a historic project: the California high speed rail line, connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles with plans to eventually expand to San Diego and Sacramento as well. It would be the first truly high speed train in the United States, and promises to alleviate road and air traffic as well as providing Californians with a significantly more environmentally friendly option for travel between those cities as well as other cities it connects to.

The project’s groundbreaking was largely ceremonial. A small mock-section of track was put on display and signed by prominent California politicians, including governor Jerry Brown and many of his cabinet members. Also in attendance was Fresno’s mayor, Ashley Swearengin, one of the few Republicans supporting the project.

But there are still plenty of hurdles to overcome. Though the project has fended off a number of court challenges, much of the funding for the line’s projected $68 billion budget has yet to be locked down. And there are still a number of technical hurdles looming on the horizon; toward the southern end of the route, riders may be forced to get off trains before reaching LA’s Union Station due to operational issues involving Metrolink, the region’s commuter rail agency.

These are reasonable objections, and the project’s critics are right to point them out – even though some of the solutions they propose to replace the project might not make sense. This certainly was true of a column published in Mother Jones, which proposed replacing the project with thousands of battery powered luxury buses. It’s a dubious plan that was thoroughly debunked in a column at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

But some objections were even less coherent. Responding to the Los Angeles Times’s coverage of the groundbreaking, one self-satisfied reader commented that the entire project was doomed to failure because the ceremonial piece of track used for the signatures “looks like it was designed centuries ago” and was “spiked to a very sad looking (and very cracked) wooden railway tie.” Another reader took a more free-market tack: “If the bullet train were economically viable, it already would exist, having been built and operated by private enterprise — like the airlines.” Never mind, of course, that the track pictured was not meant to actually be used in train operations, and that airlines rely on billions of dollars of government money used for infrastructure like airports and air traffic control in order to function.

Sadly, the fact that the California bullet train has been closely associated with a Democratic governor means it is inevitably seen through the lens of rigid partisan politics that has all but dominated policy in the United States. Which means that the train is likely to face baseless criticisms using similar kindergarten logic for the rest of its existence, and no amount of fact-based reasoning is likely to stem this tide.

Nevertheless, the fact that a Republican mayor has signed on to the project shows that there is some hope that the project may be able to win a few Republicans over. In that spirit, I’d like to add two of the most compelling cases for the project, which I think have been lost on many of its naysayers.

First, there seems to be a certain resistance to its construction based on the mere fact that the project is ambitious. Given the rather base level thought patterns that tend to dominate the political process, it’s easy to understand where these criticisms come from. Politicians are always eager to look like “winners” – a not-always-productive desire that nonetheless is often stoked by voter attitudes – and thus tend toward easy victories and shy away from long uphill projects with uncertain futures. But just because this is a general rule in politics doesn’t mean it’s right.

Jerry Brown had a pretty good dismissal of these attitudes, that seem to say that anything ambitious is not worth doing: he compared the project to the great cathedrals of France, some of which took centuries to build. A worthy example, but I’ll do him one better, using a case also taken from France: the TGV. All told, France’s high speed train took nearly two decades to enter service, and despite the fact that France is much less car-oriented than California, it faced many of the same criticisms California’s train now does. But after operation, it was a resounding success, considered by many as “the train that saved France’s rail system.”

Second, many of the objections to the train line stem from the land it would need to acquire via eminent domain. Most of this would occur in rural areas, as the right of way generally follows established train right of way through urbanized zones. Nevertheless, it would lead to a number of land owners being required to accept payment from the state as part of the eminent domain process. This, incidentally, was part of the motivation for the recently-defeated lawsuit, which sought to reroute the train down the unpopulated Interstate 5 corridor on the grounds that that would be less disruptive to property owners.

Though it may be easy for people in the cities to brush these claims off, they ought to be taken seriously. California already has plenty of examples of how irresponsible use of eminent domain can hurt communities and damage effective land use patterns. And most of these don’t come from the creation of railroads, they come from freeways. In the 1950s and 60s, the state created thousands of miles of freeways, in many cases plowing through well established urban neighborhoods as well as upending rural landowners’ property arrangements. This led to the “freeway revolts”: widespread public outcry in large cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles against the creation of new freeways. This led to the adoption of stronger protections against new freeway projects. Ironically, some of the laws created to block freeway construction can also be used against railways.

While property owners and area residents affected by the new train have every right to expect fair compensation for their land, it must be remembered that the train will be able to carry large numbers of passengers while using much less space than highways. Blocking train construction puts these property owners at risk of losing much larger tracts of land later if freeways are built instead of rail to meet projected travel demand, since freeways need to be much wider to handle the same traffic volume as high speed rail. And lest we forget, perpetuating reliance on more polluting auto traffic puts everyone at risk because of the destructive effects of climate change.

Given the political climate as well as some legitimate concerns, it’s easy to understand people’s objections to the project. But despite these objections, the project will ultimately be a net benefit to the state; a boon to local economies as well as the environment. Maybe someday, long after the train has opened, people will look back and shake their heads in amazement that anyone could have been opposed to it.

Drew Reed is an online media producer and community activist specialising in sustainable transportation. He lives in Buenos Aires.

Image via Wikimedia