California Dreamin' on High-Speed Rail

Despite a hobbled economy, California is moving ahead with the first 130-mile stretch of its 520-mile high-speed-rail corridor.The Japanese built a bullet train in the 1960s. Europe soon followed suit. Now California lawmakers have approved spending $8 billion to prepare the first 130-mile stretch of what in the future could become a West Coast high-speed rail corridor.

Approval came despite severe fiscal pressures and the negative votes of senators who sit on the high-speed rail project. Senator Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, called the first $6 billion leg between Merced and Bakersfield "the wrong plan, in the wrong place, at the wrong time."

But supporters such as Senator Juan Vargas, D-San Diego, said high-speed rail is like "the things that dreams are made of." If everything stays on track and another $20 billion can be scrounged, service won't begin any earlier than 2022.

Boondoggle or dream, the project hasn't cleared every hurdle. California voters must approve a $10 billion bond measure this November. The ultimate high-speed line stretching from San Francisco through Los Angeles to Anaheim carries a price tag of $69 billion. California officials hope to acquire half that amount from the federal government and $13.1 billion from private sources.

The price tag for a high-speed rail line running the entire length of the West Coast from Vancouver, B.C. to San Diego seems unfathomable. But, as California Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said, "Ten, 20, 30 years from now, Californians will be glad we made the decision and we have a 21st century transportation system."

Last week's vote also included $714 million to upgrade local transit lines to connect to high-speed rail and electrify the Caltrain between Sacramento and San Francisco. To sweeten the deal, $500 million was added for commuter line upgrades in Los Angeles.

Japan invested in a bullet train to move people faster in a congested corridor, without increasing oil imports. With construction expedited before the 1964 Olympic Games, the first intercity route began with 12 cars per train, each seating 150 people and reaching average speeds exceeding 101 miles per hour. The bullet train attracted 100 million passengers in its first three years of operation and reached 1 billion passengers in 1976. Japanese bullet trains now are larger, with 16 cars, reach speeds exceeding 300 miles per hour and traverse 1,484 miles of track.

Regular high-speed rail service began in Europe in 1965 between Paris and Toulouse. Great Britain introduced high-speed service, followed by more lines on the continent. Spain's first high-speed line opened in 1992 between Madrid and Seville. It now plans Europe's most ambitious high-speed rail expansion.

The fastest current U.S. train is operated by Amtrak and connects Boston, New York and Washington, D.C., traveling at speeds up to 150 miles per hour.

U.S. policymakers have identified 12 high-speed corridors, including one in the Pacific Northwest. A critical consideration will be whether to build new track, which can be designed for faster moving trains, or use existing track, forcing slower speeds.

Whatever decisions are made in any of the designated corridors, the United States is a late entrant. The largest length of high-speed trackage is in China — at more than 6,000 miles, including the world's first high-speed commercial magnetic levitation (maglev) line. A fatal accident slowed expansion in 2011, but the Chinese are busily investing in high-speed train technology as an industry of the future.