As a former Californian who visits every year and travels from north to south by car at least twice each visit, I really appreciated this article which pretty says it all. Thanks, Sam. The "huge expense" indeed. This project could be had for a tenth of what the US is still spending in Iraq every year. So it isn't really a question of money, it's a question of Americans getting their priorities straight and stopping being suckers, a question of attitude and mentality. As pointed out below, the French can build 450 mile high speed lines pretty much in their sleep.
PS--I had to laugh when the author said he got from downtown LA to Ventura on Amtrak in 2 hours. That's about how long it takes by car during rush hour when the freeways are jammed. The French TGV would make the same distance in less than 15 minutes.
MBOn Sun, Jun 14, 2009 at 1:31 PM, SAM ANDERSON <[log in to unmask]> wrote:June 14, 2009-- nytimes.comGetting Up to SpeedHi Speed Rails: Pipedreams in the USBy JON GERTNER<<Just about everyone involved with the California rail project tends to make the point that, its huge expense notwithstanding, the state isn’t attempting the hypothetical. There’s some reality behind it. From the very start, various Japanese, German and French consultants have all found the state’s plans to be sound. “This is not a demonstration project,” Daniels said. “We don’t want to produce anything that is not absolutely proven in Europe or Asia. No experiments.” At some point soon, perhaps by 2012, the rail planners will start the procurement process, Daniels told me. The project calls for around 100 trains, each about 656 feet long, each holding 400 to 500 passengers and each costing $30 million to $35 million. Only five or six companies in the world can make such trains, and of them, only two at the moment — Siemens in Germany and Alstom in France — can build them to be reliably fast enough for the California corridor.>><trainspan.jpg>This is a story not about Amtrak but about trains, and the problem with any story about trains in America is that you often find yourself thinking about Amtrak, and you often find yourself thinking about how nice it would be if you weren’t thinking about Amtrak. This is especially true when you’re actually riding on Amtrak, which happened to be the case one morning in March when I boarded the Pacific Surfliner in downtown Los Angeles for a 500-mile trip, mostly up the coast, to Sacramento. Anyone who lives in California can tell you that this is folly: other ways of traveling from Los Angeles to Sacramento are quicker and less frustrating and not much more expensive. You can fly in 90 minutes for around $100. Or you can drive in six hours for less than $50 in gas. For $55, my Amtrak journey was scheduled to take at least 12 hours 25 minutes. With any luck, I would arrive there by 9 p.m. And it was fairly obvious to me that I would need some luck, because my ticket to Sacramento had not bought me a train ride, exactly, but a train-bus-train ride. In San Luis Obispo, I would get off the Surfliner and board an Amtrak bus; in San Jose, I would get off the bus and board a different train to Sacramento. There was little room for error: a slow train and I would miss the bus; a slow bus and I would miss the second train. It’s true I could have taken other trains to Sacramento instead, but these had their own drawbacks. The Coast Starlight, for instance, which runs north along the Pacific Coast from L.A., doesn’t involve any buses, but travel time is an estimated 13 hours 44 minutes. What’s worse, the Starlight, a k a the Starlate, is a train of such legendary unreliability that it is not so much a train as an anti-train. In the past it has been known to run 11 or 12 hours behind schedule and post an on-time percentage in the single digits. A third travel option promised to take about eight hours over a more direct inland route. To leave at a reasonable hour, though, I would need to take a bus from L.A. to Bakersfield, catch a train called the San Joaquin and travel to Stockton, then ride another bus from Stockton to Sacramento. So I opted for the train-bus-train combo over the bus-train-bus alternative.The Surfliner was scheduled to leave at 7:30 a.m., and as it happened we pulled out of the station only a minute late. I had two reasons for going to Sacramento. The first was to get a clearer sense of why a lot of people in California think it’s necessary to build an entirely new passenger-rail system. The second was to see how they might do so. Since it was established in 1996, the California High Speed Rail Authority, an assemblage of train advocates and engineers, had been working out of offices in the capital to explore how the state could build a rail line from Los Angeles to San Francisco for $33 billion, with two additional branches — costing billions more — eventually extending to Sacramento in the north and San Diego in the south. It would not be an Amtrak operation but one owned by the state of California. Last November, state voters approved a $10 billion bond measure to get the project moving. Earlier this year, President Obama, who on a trip to France in April conceded he was “jealous” of European high-speed trains, submitted budget and stimulus plans that together allocated approximately $13 billion for high-speed rail over the next five years. It seems almost certain that at least some of that money, and perhaps a significant percentage of it, will go this fall to California’s project, which is the most developed of any U.S. high-speed-rail plan. Ray LaHood, the U.S. secretary of transportation, told me recently that Californians “are obviously way, way ahead of everyone else.” In late May, LaHood rode on the French and Spanish high-speed-rail lines and met with European train companies that hope to sell their products to the United States.If it can get started, the California high-speed train would almost certainly be the most expensive single infrastructure project in United States history. And if it is completed, the train will go from L.A. to San Francisco in just under 2 hours 40 minutes and from L.A. to Sacramento in about 2 hours 17 minutes. Judging by the experiences of Japan and France, both of which have mature high-speed rail systems, it would end the expansion of regional airline traffic as in-state travelers increasingly ride the fast trains. And it would surely slow the growth of highway traffic. Other potential benefits are also intriguing: a probable economic windfall for several cities along the route, with rejuvenated neighborhoods and center cities; several hundred thousand jobs in construction, manufacturing, operations and maintenance; and the environmental benefits that come from vehicles far more efficient and far less polluting than jets, buses and cars. Apart from the breathtaking price tag, commentators often focus on the projected velocity of the California trains, on how they will reach an astounding 220 m.p.h. in some stretches near Bakersfield and will cover the distance from L.A. to the Bay Area at an average speed approaching 175 m.p.h. As someone who never understood the zealotry of hard-core train enthusiasts, I found the project’s other selling points more compelling: center city to center city in a few hours without airport lines or onerous security checks. No bus connections. No traffic. And no counting on luck. Which is to say that high-speed trains are obviously about going fast, but when you think about it, they’re just as much about time as speed.Once our Surfliner left the Los Angeles metro area, the stations slipped past slowly: Glendale, Van Nuys, Simi Valley, Moorpark, Camarillo, Oxnard. Two hours into the ride, near Ventura, we picked up the pace, and soon the train was zipping along the shoreline, first passing lemon groves and freshly plowed fields, then grasslands of wildflowers and scrub brush — punctuated in places by a lone cypress — that all sloped a hundred yards or so downhill toward the Pacific. On a plane at 30,000 feet or in a car on a highway whose inclines have been tamed and curves eased, you can forget the great sweep of California’s topography. Rediscovering it on the Surfliner is something to say in its favor. On the other hand, you can also rediscover why you might rather fly.Somewhere in the midst of this desolate and gusty landscape we came to a dead stop. Ten minutes passed, then 20. There was a faint hum from the engines; a rocking motion from the wind. The train was about half full, and most of us looked at each other for clues. Eventually, two conductors walked up the aisle toward the engine car. Both were strapping on heavy work gloves. Something needed fixing outside, obviously, since we heard them descend to the tracks, followed by laughter and some alarming clanging noises. Across the aisle, a woman glanced at me nervously.When the conductors stepped back on board, they had satisfied looks. “We threw some switches to get onto the sidings,” one of them told me, catching her breath as she removed her work gloves. I hadn’t realized that Amtrak employees who take tickets and wear crisp formal uniforms also tend to the tracks. But on the Surfliner, at least, they do.Several hours later, when we finally pulled into San Luis Obispo, it was early afternoon and we were running about 30 minutes late. Out on the station platform, a conductor informed us that a connection was around the corner: a shiny blue bus, emblazoned with an Amtrak California seal. A large crowd surrounded the bus driver, a big man who was loading luggage into the stowaway compartment. One by one he pointed to each of us and asked us to step forward, state our destination and hand over our suitcases. Apparently he had a system of arranging baggage in some kind of highly complex, reverse-chronological order. The process took him 30 minutes.Before he started the bus, the driver informed us that unless it was an emergency, we should not use the bathroom on board — it was, he said, not “really working, actually.” The bus would be making a few stops, he said, including one in a place called King City, where we would have 15 minutes at a McDonald’s. But we would not be permitted to go to the King City Taco Bell two parking lots over or to the King City Starbucks across the street. “Sorry, guys,” he said. Those places were too far away. “We’ll have to leave without you,” he added sternly. A simple journey up the coast had turned into a class trip with the assistant principal. But as we got on the highway, I was mostly concerned about the time and wondering how I could possibly connect, four hours from now, with my second train.The Sacramento headquarters of the California High Speed Rail Authority occupy a suite of offices in a high-rise building a half-block from the state Capitol. That’s where I sat down with Tony Daniels, a bluff, silver-haired Englishman who works as project director on the rail plan. When Daniels asked about my trip from Los Angeles the night before, I told him that our bus arrived in San Jose with seven minutes to spare. After a sprint through the station, I made it to a Sacramento-bound train that turned out to be surprisingly efficient. Daniels seemed amused. You should have taken the San Joaquin, he said; “that’s a nice train.” Too bad ours isn’t built yet, he added.Daniels helps coordinate the hundreds of engineers — almost all of them private contractors at large firms — working on the California high-speed project. He reports to an executive director named Mehdi Morshed, an engineer whose résumé is filled with California transportation projects, as well as to a board of nine political appointees. After a few hours talking with Daniels and Morshed, I still couldn’t gauge the mood in the rail-authority offices. The place seemed to have an air of both defeat and giddy optimism. The rail authority has never been especially popular; for years its cause has been criticized as a science-fiction dream and, more recently, a government boondoggle to dwarf all previous government boondoggles. Even for the less cynical — editorial boards and legislators, mainly — legitimate philosophical questions about its mission have never fully subsided. Can California really afford such a project? Shouldn’t transportation dollars be spent instead on upgrading urban mass transit or commuter rail, both of which would also ease freeway traffic? Over the past decade, specific parts of the rail plan — tunnels, mountain passes, stations, environmental impacts, costs, ridership estimates, the technologies needed, you name it — have been challenged at nearly every turn by officials and citizens alike, as have the motives and wisdom of rail-authority board members and staff employees. All the while, the state’s governors (Pete Wilson at first, then Gray Davis) endorsed the authority’s existence but withheld full-throated support. And then suddenly last year, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who as governor had mostly displayed a “benign indifference” for the project, as the rail-authority chairman Quentin Kopp told me, revealed an extreme form of high-speed-train enthusiasm. Last fall Schwarzenegger agreed to put the $10 billion bond issue on the ballot, and to the surprise of many it won. When the recent federal stimulus plan offered the possibility of billions more for the California rail project, it was as if the perpetual losers in Sacramento won a huge talent contest they never expected to win.<Cost Comparison.jpg> <HiSpeed Rail PLan-CA.jpg>
In a country with no real experience of bullet trains — the Acela, which runs between Boston and Washington, doesn’t exceed 150 m.p.h. — it isn’t immediately obvious what makes the systems so advanced and expensive. When I met with Daniels he took me through the ways a high-speed train differs from, say, the Surfliner. “These are very powerful animals,” he said of the vehicles that run in Europe and Asia. It’s more accurate to think of them as lithe rather than brawny, however. They are light. Or as the French tend to say, the trains have a high power-to-weight ratio that allows them to attain terrific velocities. What’s more, the newest high-speed designs do not depend on locomotives pulling or pushing a string of cars. Instead, powerful motors are distributed throughout the undersides of the train cars. Up above, the trains are delicate: the pantograph that touches an overhead electrical wire (the catenary) is far more sensitive than its equivalent on regular trains in order to maintain electrical contact at extreme speeds. Things are different on the ground too. Crossties are made from concrete and not timber, and rails are sometimes set on a concrete bed rather than a ballast of crushed stone. The alignment of the rails cannot involve tight curves or sharp turns — because straighter track is faster, and faster track is the whole point. One of the most crucial distinctions with the trains, finally, is invisible: they have a signaling technology, called “positive train control,” that keeps tabs on the location of the trains in operation. If a train gets close to the one ahead of it, it slows down automatically — or shuts down altogether if it gets too close. A big seismic tremor or act of sabotage trips the system, too.You can’t plunk a bullet train down on an existing corridor. High-speed lines in Asia and Europe are, in the argot of transportation engineers like Daniels, “dedicated lines without grade crossings.” That means vast stretches of the routes are for high-speed trains only (no freight or commuter trains allowed) and are built so that anything crossing the train’s path (local roads, highways, freight lines, white-tailed deer) must do so via overpass or underpass. Hence a virgin 400- or 500-mile track in California, in addition to its own construction, entails hundreds of massive construction projects in order to divert all sorts of cross traffic. A dedicated line also requires a secure fence on both sides of the tracks. Because it takes several miles to brake-stop a train barreling along at 200 m.p.h. — French authorities consider drivers incapable of reacting quickly enough to stimuli at top speed — fences are needed to keep cattle and curious kids from wandering near.As Daniels described his project, I tried to scribble down his to-do list, but that seemed almost hopeless. In addition to the current financing, the rail system will need tens of billions of additional dollars from the state, the federal government and private investors to actually be finished. In addition to track beds and rails and fences and trains and signals — all built to withstand earthquakes — a large power supply and vast new electrical system with substations every 30 miles will be needed. There will be as many as 24 passenger stations along the way, most of them built from scratch, while others, like Union Station in Los Angeles, will need to be expanded significantly to accommodate millions of new train riders every year. (A small but typical headache: Union Station is on the national register of historic places, which makes renovations and expansions especially fraught.) The train plan will also necessitate thousands of pages of environmental and public-review documents. And it will require an entirely new set of safety regulations from the Federal Rail Administration. The F.R.A. has largely focused on requiring trains to demonstrate crash worthiness, whereas in Europe and Asia the emphasis is on avoiding crashes. (There was a deadly high-speed-train accident in Germany in 1998, but in 45 years of operation in Japan, and in 28 years in France, there has never been a fatality on a high-speed train.)And these aren’t even the biggest problems. The monumental difficulty of the California rail project is finalizing the route. An approximate plan has been approved, but over the next year the authority will pinpoint precisely where the train will run, down to the inch. Significant purchases of land will have to be made, and in some places the state might have to exercise eminent domain. At one point Daniels took me down into what he calls his war room, a large space with huge maps on the wall and thousands of pages of regulatory documents piled on tables. One thing you notice if you spend time with rail planners is that it’s difficult to separate engineering concerns from economic and political issues. It’s as if the relationship between these competing forces forms a set of interrelated mathematical equations; change one variable and you have to rework the entire calculus. One of the largest maps in Daniels’s war room is of the 58 miles between Bakersfield and Merced. It’s a stretch of pancake-flat farmland — “the train will just whistle here,” Daniels said — through which the lines of two freight railroads, the Union Pacific and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, already pass. Both companies own strips of land bordering their own tracks that they can sell or lease. Union Pacific apparently isn’t interested in the high-speed-rail authority’s offers; Burlington Northern is. The Union Pacific route is a straight line; the Burlington route arcs between the towns. All told, the Burlington route is several miles longer, which leads to a dilemma. By law — that is, according to the bond measure that authorizes the rail project — the California train has to travel between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 2 hours 40 minutes. Adding distance might add too much time. Daniels showed me a printout of a computer model demonstrating how a particular German high-speed train, one of the best in the world, would do on the longer route. “It comes in at 2 hours 39 minutes and 53 seconds,” he said. “That’s too tight for me.” It’s possible the Germans (or other manufacturers) could build a souped-up train. Or it’s possible the route could be shortened in other spots. It’s also possible that a portion of the route elsewhere could be engineered with a lesser gradient that would permit greater speed. But that could require a longer tunnel — and more money. And what about buying some farmland for a more direct route? Reduced time, but more money. And no doubt a political headache as well. “It’s tough,” Daniels said, almost to himself, as he looked at the map. And this was just one segment.For the moment, it’s fair to assume that the high-speed-rail project will be a vivid, 10-year nightmare for many engineers and Californians. On the positive side, the start of construction — beginning, say, with all those grade crossings — will instantly create thousands of jobs, a considerable boost given the state’s double-digit unemployment rate. But it will disrupt dozens of communities and almost certainly raise the ire of many civic activists. If recent history is any lesson — and you might consider Boston’s “Big Dig” — the train will likely encounter cost overruns, delays and perhaps even tragic accidents and corruption. Antagonistic politicians and environmental lawsuits may drive its costs even higher. And through it all there will be a lingering question: Is demand strong enough to support the projected annual ridership between Los Angeles and San Francisco of about 54 million passengers by 2030? Quentin Kopp, the chairman of the rail authority, told me that he thinks the estimates are accurate. “But if we’re off on that,” he acknowledged, “then we won’t succeed.”Mehdi Morshed, the authority’s executive director, doesn’t really try to play down the risks. But he is certain that once the train is completed (in 2020, according to current estimates), it will never be second-guessed. It seems to amuse Morshed that everyone sees his group as dreamers, whereas he sees them as realists. The fundamental case made by his rail authority is that the stupendous cost of the rail plan is still tens of billions of dollars lower than the other option — expanding the highways and airports to accommodate the state’s population growth. “It is one of those things that you can’t avoid,” Morshed said. “It’s just, when do you face it? We are a state that depends on high mobility. We move around. That’s one reason the economy is vibrant. There was no physical way to expand without building a high-speed rail.” It’s the only choice, Morshed insisted again. “And the longer we wait the more it will cost.”Just about everyone involved with the California rail project tends to make the point that, its huge expense notwithstanding, the state isn’t attempting the hypothetical. There’s some reality behind it. From the very start, various Japanese, German and French consultants have all found the state’s plans to be sound. “This is not a demonstration project,” Daniels said. “We don’t want to produce anything that is not absolutely proven in Europe or Asia. No experiments.” At some point soon, perhaps by 2012, the rail planners will start the procurement process, Daniels told me. The project calls for around 100 trains, each about 656 feet long, each holding 400 to 500 passengers and each costing $30 million to $35 million. Only five or six companies in the world can make such trains, and of them, only two at the moment — Siemens in Germany and Alstom in France — can build them to be reliably fast enough for the California corridor. It is too early to predict which company could make the most appealing bid; it’s also premature to say whether some companies might team up to form a consortium, one that perhaps offers California a deal on trains, signaling, maintenance and electrical infrastructure. In any event, one of the most sophisticated trains in the world right now is the AGV (the letters stand for Automotrice à Grande Vitesse), which is designed and built by Alstom in France. The train was introduced at the beginning of 2008 as the successor to the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse), France’s high-speed workhorse that has been in operation through various upgrades since the first high-speed line opened in that country in 1981, connecting Paris and Lyon. On any given day, there are about 450 TGVs running in France and another three dozen TGV “Eurostar” trains that travel between Britain and the Continent.I went to see the AGV in early April. There is a single prototype at the moment, and it resides on a fenced-in railway siding in La Rochelle, an ancient, windswept city on France’s Atlantic coast. The day before I traveled to La Rochelle, I had breakfast in a Paris cafe with Philippe Mellier, the president of Alstom Transport, and François Lacôte, the head of Alstom’s research and development efforts. Both men have already met with the California team, and for good reason: Lacôte happens to be one of the primary and original architects of the French high-speed-train system. Mellier, who is his boss, referred to him, only half in jest, as “the father and the mother of the TGV.”On his laptop, Lacôte showed me charts and graphs relating to the origins of the French high-speed system. Judging by his experience, the rail network now considered the world’s gold standard had some difficult early years. Japan was the first country to build a bullet train in the mid-1960s. “For France, that was a kind of shock,” Lacôte told me. His country always prided itself on its trains, he said, and here was a technology that threatened its eminence. Lacôte said that in the beginning there was great skepticism among government officials that a high-speed line for France was practical or necessary. Nevertheless, the French national railway agency, S.N.C.F., teamed up with Alstom to build the first TGV in 1972. It was a gas-powered test model that, according to Lacôte, worked well enough to convince a handful of important politicians that the idea was viable. “The president of France, Georges Pompidou, a few months before he died in 1974, decided to launch the new line between Paris and Lyon, with a target speed of 260 k.p.h.,” or about 162 m.p.h., Lacôte recalled. Over the next few years the TGV design evolved into a more efficient, electricity-driven train. When it began operating in the 1980s, ridership quickly met projections. In the decades since, the airline business between the two cities mostly evaporated, and the top speed on the line — which turns an operating profit — has risen to about 320 k.p.h., which, at nearly 200 m.p.h., translates into a two-hour trip. (Paris is about 460 kilometers, or 285 miles, from Lyon.) At peak times, double-decker trains carrying more than 1,000 people leave Paris every 30 minutes for Lyon. “Those trains are full, full, full,” Mellier told me. Generally speaking, Mellier added, Alstom’s high-speed trains suffer two or three “faults” — delays of more than five minutes — for every one million kilometers, or about every 621,000 miles, they travel.When I toured the AGV prototype the next evening in La Rochelle, I was shown around by Eric Marie, who manages the high-speed trains at the La Rochelle factory, and Laurent Baron, the engineer in charge of developing the prototype. Marie and Baron each told me that in Europe, high-speed trains have cornered, or would soon corner, the market for any trip under three hours. “If you look at rail, this California corridor is a perfect one,” Marie said. “You have a distance that falls between this definition of three hours. And the traffic of airplanes is incredible.” With the AGV, Baron added, Alstom was trying to increase the train speed so that it could do 1,000 kilometers (about 620 miles) in three hours. “Basically that allows us to go from one extremity of France to another” in that time or less, he said. “So the idea is really to kill the interior plane system.” The success of such efforts depends as much on pricing as performance, of course. Railway operators essentially choose between maximizing ridership (through lower prices), maximizing profits (through higher prices) or opting for some middle ground. The numbers are quite elastic. In California, the rail authority tested 13 different pricing schemes, comparing the effects, for instance, of prices set at averages of 50 percent and 77 percent of airfares. The lower price projected 15 million more riders annually.Only two of the seven AGV cars were outfitted with seats to explore possible interior designs. The other cars were filled with long, makeshift wooden tables where Alstom engineers worked at their laptops. As we walked through the length of the AGV, the contrast between its sleek, silver exterior and its internal chaos — tools, cables and calibrating equipment were strewn everywhere — was disorienting. Baron and Marie explained that the train, which cost about 100 million euros, or about $141 million, to develop, was driven extensively last year on test tracks in the Czech Republic and in France (where it achieved speeds of 360 k.p.h., or about 223 m.p.h.). Until the La Rochelle factory begins delivering trains next year, the parked prototype remains a laboratory for tests — on noise, lighting, interior layout and the like. Perfecting the train’s hardware and software is especially crucial, since in many ways it is a rolling computer. The AGV’s first car is loaded with databanks and communications equipment, in part because of the European Union’s vestigial provincialism. Signaling systems can change several times on a single route, as can voltages and currents (there is AC as well as DC), which means the train’s computers must frequently compensate for power variations. In some ways, accommodating for these inconsistencies means that designing an AGV train for Europe is more complex than designing one for, say, California.The first order for the model, 25 trains, has come from Italy, where a group of private investors has founded a train operator called Nuovo Trasporto Viaggiatori. In Europe, at least, the high-speed market may soon start to resemble the early days of the airline industry, in which private operators like NTV, not just state-owned corporations, see an opportunity to buy trains from companies like Alstom or Siemens, pay a fee for track usage and start hauling passengers. Alstom’s engineers thus set out to design a faster, more cost-efficient (and environmentally efficient) train. Compared with a single-decker TGV, the new AGV holds 20 percent more passengers. At the same time, it’s lighter, thanks partly to new composite materials that have replaced steel, and it uses significantly less energy than previous models.I left La Rochelle late the next morning and caught the train to Paris, from where I later took the TGV to Strasbourg, the country’s newest high-speed route. On the way to Strasbourg I rode in the driver’s cabin, which narrows aerodynamically toward the nose of the train, where the driver’s chair is located. More than anything, the room resembled the cone of a forward-facing rocket, with a confusing variety of screens, dials and communications equipment and a large, sloping windshield that carried the splattered remains of high-speed encounters with French insects. The four of us in the small space — the driver, his supervisor, an Alstom representative and myself — made for a tight fit. We eased out of Paris slowly on track shared with slower commuter lines; once we moved onto dedicated track, however, the driver used a hand throttle to accelerate the train to 320 kilometers per hour, or about 199 m.p.h. Looking out the windshield was an experience of onrushing geometry: the rails stretching out one way and the crossties going another; and above, the long electric catenary wire, held aloft by evenly spaced poles, reaching straight to the horizon. In the cabin, there was a steady noise of electronic buzzers and bleats. When a TGV driver’s foot loses contact with a floor sensor for more than 30 seconds, for instance, a warning bell sounds, alerting the driver that he has 2.5 seconds to push a button and demonstrate he hasn’t taken ill for some reason. If he doesn’t answer the signal, the train shuts down.The Strasbourg line, about 300 miles long, took seven years and five billion euros to plan and build, including one billion euros for the trains. Since it opened in 2007 it has exceeded ridership projections and has expanded rail’s share of that travel market to about 70 percent from 40 percent. (The ultimate goal is 90 percent.) On the way to Strasbourg we passed mostly pasture land. Cows grazed under cloudy skies. Occasionally, we sped past fields of colza, blooms of mustard-colored flowers that turned the countryside a blurred, brilliant yellow. Gabriel Nonnemacher — a compact and ebullient train supervisor who answered my questions so the driver would not be distracted — pointed out landmarks as we went along. The train route dated to the 1860s, he said, when the trip usually took seven hours or so. In more recent years, Paris-to-Strasbourg was four hours by rail. The high-speed line had brought the journey down to 2 hours 20 minutes, but there were already discussions, he said, about creating a longer dedicated track for this same corridor, so trains could go faster for a longer time and reduce the trip to 1 hour 50 minutes. As we glided into the Strasbourg station, Nonnemacher pointed to the digital clock to the left of the driver. “Voilà,” he said. Our train was supposed to arrive at 7:41 p.m. We were five seconds early.In the spring, as California teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, it seemed conceivable that state budget cuts might affect the high-speed-rail planners, perhaps forcing some of the engineers to pause their work. Yet because the money for the train comes from state bond sales and is not part of the state’s “general fund,” several members of the rail authority told me that they doubted budget shortfalls would have any near-term impact. In fact, the project appeared finally to have taken on momentum. In April, when Obama sketched out a vision for various regional corridors — in California, Florida, Pennsylvania, the Pacific Northwest and the Midwest — he and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood made the case that forthcoming federal investments in rail projects like California’s were akin to Dwight Eisenhower’s decision 53 years ago to build a national network of Interstate highways. The federal high-speed-rail money was only a down payment, Obama acknowledged, but it would allow Americans “to imagine what’s possible.” When I spoke with LaHood, I asked what the administration learned from the experiences of Japan and France. “That these things can’t happen unless you have real intense involvement from the government,” he replied. “That these things are very expensive. But we wouldn’t have an Interstate system if there weren’t an involvement from the government. And it still took us three decades to do it. That’s how we should look at high-speed rail.” By 2012, LaHood said, “I think you’ll see construction on high-speed rail in California. I think you’ll see final plans in the Midwest. And I think you’ll see final plans of what to do in the Northeast corridors.”One fundamental challenge of high-speed rail is that construction time generally exceeds the term, or terms, of elected politicians. When I spoke to Schwarzenegger in early May, he mainly seemed to view the rail plan with a mixture of near-term and long-term pragmatism. It would immediately create jobs; and in time it would cut pollution, reduce congestion and obviate the need to expand the airports. He had been riding high-speed trains for decades, he told me, even back in his early days of attending bodybuilding competitions in Japan. “I came to America because America is No. 1 in just about everything: the biggest bridges, the biggest buildings,” he said. “Everything here was always huge and generous. The greatest opportunities. And then as you live here you see we are slipping in some areas. Look at the train system. They’re running the same speed as they were 100 years ago. Is that what No. 1 does? Live in the past?” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that some trains actually run slower now than they did nearly 100 years ago. Instead, I asked if he expected to break ground on the rail project before he finishes his term in January 2011. “That’s my goal,” he said.This is probably too optimistic. Most people I spoke with think a few years is more likely, because of the time-consuming nature of the environmental-review process. And even a groundbreaking ceremony doesn’t mean the rail link between Northern and Southern California is imminent. Think of the train — as those at the rail authority do — not as one line but as eight connected segments. Some parts of the route (from San Francisco to San Jose, or Anaheim to Los Angeles) could open long before others, possibly generating renewed political support for the project several years from now. An opening of a particular segment, moreover, could help attract private-sector investors who think the rail line might turn an operating profit. Clearly, the thing is so expensive and complex that it’s easier to think of in parts than the whole.That’s not to say that the parts are easy. Already this spring, the board of the California High Speed Rail Authority was getting a bitter taste of the battles to come. Among other things, potential problems had arisen over the size of a planned rail station in San Francisco. Meanwhile, a not-in-my-backyard standoff with the city of Palo Alto, still unresolved, was raging over the route of the train through town.It is sometimes easy to forget in the disputes over state money and local politics that the train project has national implications too. For one thing, it represents the challenge of getting big and risky things built following a boom-time era when it often seemed as if America was content to build little else besides cars, houses and shopping malls. In the United States and France, I encountered the belief that if California could break ground and actually see its rail project through, that could permanently change public opinion about big infrastructure spending and would represent a departure from a half-century of federal transportation policy focused mostly on financing highways and airports. “If California is a success, I believe in the U.S. we’ll see a lot more high-speed lines,” Philippe Mellier, the head of Alstom Transport, told me when we met in Paris. “I believe it will be the showcase. But if it’s not working well? In the end it could be a failure for many years for this idea in the U.S. So it has to be very carefully done.”There aren’t really any recent examples of high-speed rail as a technical failure. Yet it is entirely plausible that the financial and political difficulties in California could keep other regions from trying to replicate its rail project. Disappointing ridership numbers, without question, could do the same. If, on the other hand, the California train does succeed, it will likely spur economic development in the state as well as some less predictable social impacts. In France, Mellier pointed me to the small city of Reims, about 90 miles from Paris, which has effectively become a Parisian suburb since the opening of the Strasbourg line in 2007. You wonder if Bakersfield could become a bedroom community of Los Angeles. In recent years, moreover, some French cartographers who think about the social effects of train transportation have taken to creating new maps of Europe that simultaneously reflect the time and the distance between cities. These “time space” drawings of France (the technical name is anamorphic maps) have a distorted look as if someone crumpled a paper rendering of the country and pulled all the surrounding cities closer to Paris than they really are. Marseille is half its real distance from the capital, as are Strasbourg and Lyon. Mostly this is because of the TGV, which seems to have knit the country together in a way that air travel never did. Alain L’Hostis, a geographer at the Université Paris-Est, told me that the train has undoubtedly changed the psychological distance between places. For the French, he said, the mobility has created among many citizens “a feeling of belonging to a common or interconnected city.”As a survivor of an Amtrak journey up the coast, I recalled those 13 hours unconnected to any California city at all — not a particularly pleasant feeling. When I asked Schwarzenegger about the social effects of a rail line, he quickly replied, “I think people will look at the state and not just say, ‘Oh, my God, I have to go from the south to the north, what a schlep.’ ” That was kind of like what L’Hostis said to me, but in a different way. After Schwarzenegger thought for a moment more, he said, speaking of his own commute by private jet: “I fly from Sacramento to Los Angeles, and it takes two hours. And if I would fly commercial, you would have to add an hour, or an hour and a half. Imagine. What if I could do high-speed rail?” I could picture a crumpled time-space drawing of his state. In my mind, and maybe in his, too, the big cities of California were already moving closer together.Jon Gertner, a frequent contributor to the magazine, often writes about business and the environment.
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