Americans who have ridden bullet trains in Europe or Asia return home scratching their heads. If only the US had such trains. In many ways, they beat flying and driving, and use much less energy. By approving a ballot measure Nov. 4, Californians can lead the nation to its first world-class fast train – if critics don't derail them.
In July, a Field Poll found that 56 percent of likely voters in the state supported a $10 billion bond measure to help pay for a bullet train that could whisk passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in about 2-1/2 hours (a driving distance of about 400 miles).
But that was then, when travelers gasped at high gas prices, congested highways and airports, and the economy was more secure. This is now, when gas prices are falling, recession winds are howling, and California faces another budget deficit. The train's critics, which include several transport experts, warn the project won't fulfill its promise: not in speed, ridership, or estimated cost ($45 billion).
The plan is the work of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, which the legislature established in 1996 to study the idea. The authority projects the trains could start rolling by 2020, with the first phase connecting San Francisco and L.A. via the wide and flat Central Valley. Eventually, service will extend to the state's other major cities, including San Diego and Sacramento. Yearly ridership is predicted at 88 million to 117 million passengers by 2030.
How can that be if last year only 26 million people rode the national rail network, Amtrak? Part of the answer lies in the state's expected population boom. But also, travelers gravitate to high-quality, affordable transport. Last year, ridership jumped 20 percent for the Acela, Amtrak's only fast train (but not as fast as trains around the world).
Opponents also say the north-south ride will take more like 3-1/2 hours, because no bullet trains operate at the plan's projected speed of up to 220 m.p.h. But Japan and France are testing prototypes capable of such speeds. And so what if the estimate is off? Downtown-to-downtown transport that's also independent of much bad weather and gate delays has its advantages.
Finally, naysayers warn the construction price will nearly double, and that the trains will operate on a regular deficit. True, research shows rail projects around the world bust construction budgets by an average 45 percent. But the rail authority's plan spreads the build-out expense and risk between the state, federal government, and private investors. And while governments do subsidize rail systems the world over, bullet trains are proven moneymakers.
Right now, voters have their faces pressed against the glass, watching financial troubles zoom past. But they should look ahead, to the bullet train's long-term benefits.
This is not a credit-card shopping spree on Rodeo Drive. It is an investment in reduced greenhouse gases, in less foreign oil, in less congestion, and in more jobs – for commerce is built on transport.
And what if the train is not built? The state will have to lay 3,000 more miles of highway and add five airport runways.
In the end, the bullet train gives California something for its money, and the chance to again set a national trend. And Americans can finally stop asking, why don't we have this?