APTA | Passenger Transport
February 16, 2009

In This Issue


High Speed Rail: On a Roll in California and the Nation

In the 1960s, the Japanese Shinkansen captured the world’s imagination as the first “bullet train,” followed in the early 1980s by the French TGV and later by similar high speed trains, now traveling at speeds exceeding 200 miles per hour, in Germany, Spain, Italy, Sweden, China, Korea, Taiwan, and many more of the more advanced countries of the world.

The Japanese and French high speed trains have carried many billions of riders without a single fatality, while freeways in the U.S. killed 43,000 people and maimed hundreds of thousands more last year.

The U.S., assumed to be the world’s technological leader, is now trying to catch up with the rest of the world’s more advanced transportation programs. With 11 congressionally designated high speed rail corridors since the mid 1990s, progress has been slow—until recently.

The California High Speed Rail Authority Board, created by the California State Legislature in 1996, has as its task to design, build, operate, and maintain a 220 mph rail system to interconnect the state’s metropolitan areas: San Diego, the Inland Empire, Los Angeles, the Central Valley, the San Francisco Bay area, and Sacramento. The authority’s board, with five members appointed by the governor and two each from the state Senate and state Assembly, has expended more than $70 million to complete the federally required environmental and engineering studies and bond-worthy business and implementation plans.

That level of preliminary investment was necessary to assure that the more than $40 billion needed for this construction project—one of the largest in the nation’s history—is well spent in the correct corridors, with stations in the best locations and using the most effective technology.

The result is a final Program Environmental Clearance approved by the federal government and certified by the CHSRA board on July 9, 2008. That plan provided the detailed background information for both technicians and voters to review as the $9.95 billon statewide high speed rail bond passed Nov. 4, 2008. These bonds provide California’s share of the project costs, with the remaining funds coming from federal grants and tax incentives plus around 30 percent from private investors.

Indeed, private investment is a major part of the high speed rail plan. Two top bond-worthy financial consulting firms agree that the completed CHSRA system will gross more than $3.5 billion per year and net as much as 40 percent of that amount after all operating and maintenance costs. That net income will amortize a significant amount of private investments to help build and later expand the basic 790 miles, double-tracked, electrified, grade-separated, right-of-way protected, safe, and fast system.

Why High Speed Rail?
The question may remain: why does California need high speed rail? The answer: it just makes good economic sense!

California’s population will double in size from the current 36 million to over 60 million by mid-century. To meet that transportation need, we can choose either 3,000 more lane-miles of freeways and two new international airports, at a cost of more than $100 billion, or the planned high speed rail system, for more than $40 billion. Further, the added freeways and airports would reach their full capacity in the 2050s, while the CHSRA system would meet those needs until 2100 with no more capital expenditures than to add more rail cars.

Economically, the CHSRA system is expected to create 160,000 jobs to build and stimulate an added 450,000 permanent jobs, none of which can be outsourced. Finally, highways and airports don’t pay for themselves, but high speed rail around the world helps build extensions and support other transportation system elements. 

Environmentally, the choice is even clearer. The highway and airport alternative would create more than 18 billion more ponds of global warming gases and use more than 22 million more barrels of oil per year than the high speed trains, which operate with electricity. High speed rail would mean a huge step toward independence from imported oil. The rail system also would synergize the effectiveness of the state’s other public transit systems and help focus growth around the train stations, while the highway and airport alternative would continue to promote urban sprawl and the desecration of our last farmlands and open spaces.

Is it too good to be true? Careful review by the state and federal authorities validated the CHSRA environmental clearance, business plan, and implementation program. Every other industrialized country in the world has or is building high speed rail. They can’t all be wrong!

Now is the time for high speed rail in California and the U.S.! Our economy is staggering; we need those jobs and the federal government is willing to help build these systems, in part, to create employment. Also, climate change has become a crisis throughout the world. In fact, the vast European and Japanese high speed rail networks are a primary reason why both areas meet the old Kyoto Accords. The U.S. has 4 percent of the world’s population, but it creates almost 30 percent of the world's greenhouse gases.

We owe it to our beleaguered economy, to our local and the world’s environment—and to our children to support this creative solution to the state’s long-term transportation challenge.

Will we be able to tell those youngsters, as global warming becomes more severe, that we’ve taken all possible actions to meet the challenge? Will future generations consider us good ancestors?

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