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While high speed rail languishes in the US, it booms in China and beyond

by Bob Morris, published

In 2008, California voters approved a $9.4 billion proposition to build a High Speed Rail [HSR] network in California. The trains will reach speeds over 200 mph. Construction may start as soon as 2011 and will take years to complete.

On Jan 28, 2009 California got a $2.3 billion share of $8 billion for HSR from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  This was less than the $4 billion the state had hoped for but obviously still welcome.  The primary line will run from San Francisco to Los Angeles, extending to Sacramento in the north and San Diego in the south. The State of California High-Speed Rail Authority estimates a trip from the Transbay Terminal in downtown San Francisco to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles would take 2 hrs and 38 minutes, and cost less than by plane or car. (Their estimate says travel by car would cost $86, which seems high but assumes depreciation as well as gas.) At both ends of such a trip, you have easy access to other mass transit like light rail, BART, subways, and buses. If you factor in how long it takes to get to and from airports, it might be faster than flying.

This could be a real boon to commuters who live along the HSR line. Imagine if you lived in Palmdale and worked in downtown Los Angeles. The trip would take 27 minutes rather than a grueling 90 minutes (or more) by car.  Would HSR lead to sprawl growing up beside it, and people leaving the city and living on the outskirts? The California High Speed Blog argues if development is done intelligently, then sprawl is avoided, citing Portland as a successful example of how to do it.*  The key thing is to encourage urban density, enact anti-sprawl regulations, make it easy to get to the outlying HSR stations, and make the stations attractive with plenty of available parking in garages.

Sounds like a great idea, right? Well, as you might expect, some of those who live leave near the proposed lines are doing everything they can to block it, especially a few communities of the super-wealthy in the Palo Alto area.  Put it underground or re-route it, they say. We don’t want to see, hear, or feel the vibrations from it, even if this kills the project by making it too expensive. While they may have legitimate concerns, it’s clear that a well-funded few can block most anything from happening by tying it up in endless court battles.

Meanwhile, in a gigantic visionary project, China plans to expand their high speed rail to Europe.  They already have the best, most extensive HSR in the world. Now they want to build multiple lines through numerous countries connecting it to Europe, in what will no doubt be the biggest infrastructure project in history. Apparently they think it can be done. Imagine what it could accomplish once completed. It would be a giant grid linking Asia to Europe.

Meanwhile, NIMBYism in the US coupled with lawsuits, budget problems, and partisan squabbling have slowed the development of HSR here, just like it has with offshore wind farms, feed-in tariffs, and renewable energy. Other countries race ahead of us with important technological and infrastructure advances while we argue endlessly about what should be done. We can do better than this. Other countries already are.


*       "Sprawl is NOT a force of nature. It is a product of three factors: cheap oil, cheap credit and favorable land use laws. Cheap oil is a thing of the past. Cheap credit will be as well – rates are low right now, but loans are hard to get, and virtually everyone expects rates to rise very soon. Even with a bailout, we have not seen a return to the lax lending practices, fueled by cheap credit, that enabled the most recent binge of Central Valley sprawl.  As to the last point, land use rules are going to have to change regardless of HSR. Stopping HSR isn’t going to eliminate sprawl, far from it. But to eliminate sprawl, you need to provide opportunities for urban density and transit-oriented development. Portland, Oregon provides the model. Portland has strict anti-sprawl rules, but these were only successful because Portland promoted urban density. Providing passenger rail has been the key to that. In short, if you want to stop sprawl, you need to give people another option."

- Quote taken from Robert Cruickshank's March 18 entry in the California High Speed Rail Blog

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