Thursday, September 8, 2011

Opinion: Even Amtrak Upgrades Are Preferable to California High-Speed Rail. Right or wrong?

Here's an interesting perspective from a California resident whose neighborhood is not going to see a high-speed rail line for decades, if not forever.  Actually, had the HSR supporters taken a less political and more transit oriented position, the more populous East Bay should have seen the HSR route go from Sacramento down the East side of San Francisco Bay to San Jose and then South along route #5. But, that actually violates my absolute hostility to this train for all the reasons that appear on this blog daily. 

The issue here is that our article author wants to fund Amtrak throughout the US, bringing passenger rail speeds back up to the 100 mph that we once saw on the tens of thousands of railroad lines all over the country.  

But, as we also know, passenger rail declined continuously over the past sixty years until it started to turn around, modestly, in the past two or three years.  We tend to attribute that decline to the emergence of the highway system and commercial aviation which gave transit users better cost/benefits.

So, in response to this article, I would raise the question, is it not too late to turn the clock back to a happier day when cigar smoking businessmen could enjoy the club car and the dining car, and most of us (including me) took trains pretty much wherever we went if we didn't drive?

Mr. Fankuchen is in agreement with us on this blog when he rejects high-speed rail for what it is, a wasteful boondoggle.  But, by encouraging the resurrection of  Amtrak/inter-city passenger rail with those funds, he fails to understand the current drift toward ever larger cities and their surrounds.  

My point here is that transit should go to where people are.  That means urban and regional public mass transit, including rail when and where appropriate.  I'm also advocating a multi-modal approach to transit in the greater metropolitan regions.  And, therefore, that's where "investment" in transit should be made, on the principle of "the greatest good for the greatest number." 
My Word: Amtrak upgrade is better solution than high-speed rail
By Steve Fankuchen
Posted: 09/08/2011 10:27:32 AM PDT
Updated: 09/08/2011 10:27:35 AM PDT

As a frequent long-distance train traveler, (15,000 miles last year, 12,000 anticipated this year) I would like to note that, while your Aug. 26 editorial regarding high-speed rail is accurate in its criticisms of California's program, it is completely wrong to ignore the inexpensive option of improving Amtrak's Bay Area to Los Angeles route.

For several billion dollars, a small fraction of the cost of a new high-speed-rail system, one could upgrade Amtrak to a system that would go 100 mph. The reality is very few people who would take the circuitous, valley-routed high speed rail for three or more hours to Los Angeles would not take the train if it took but an hour longer going a more direct route either over Altamont Pass or along an improved Coast Starlight route.

With laptops and Internet-enabled phones now common and wireless connectivity possible on trains, the extra hour easily could be used for work or relaxation in a more comfortable environment than at airports and on planes. And if you add the time for travel to the airport, security checks and frequent delays, an Amtrak system such as already exists in the Northeast would hardly be longer than a plane trip for downtown-to-downtown passengers.

The current routing of the California high-speed rail fantasy exists as political pork rather than transportation efficiency. 

Successful high-speed rails around the world depend on feeder lines of mass transport coming from population concentrations to very limited stops, not a new station in every legislator's district.

In any case, a little more time on long distance trains is not necessarily a bad idea. Amtrak is, perhaps, the most patriotic institution in our country. True long-distance trains are the one place where people from different backgrounds and with different outlooks on life do actually come together and talk. What makes this possible is a genuine sense of community, ample time and the knowledge that unless you choose otherwise, you will never see the people again.

I have been on dozens of cross-country trips on Amtrak, covering all long-distance routes. Each train has its own personality, each route's passengers different. And each time I learn something new from folks I otherwise would never meet in the daily course of events.

Most of America's movers and shakers travel by plane. Rarely do they actually meet, let alone converse with, people in between whose lives are led at ground level. Trains bring people together, something America is sorely in need of given the divisiveness of the past 10 years.

The current high-speed rail proposal is the equivalent of Boston's Big Dig crossed with Alaska's Bridge To Nowhere, a black hole producing no significant advantage, while sucking in many billions of dollars that could be spent on education, health care and incentives for California businesses to expand and hire new workers or simply cut taxes. Take 15 percent, give it to Amtrak and we will have a first-class rail connection to Los Angeles that will take much pressure off the drive to widen I-5 (a road we can't even afford to keep in good repair at its current two lanes) and enlarge our airports.

Long-term Amtrak funding is the solution to North-South transportation in California.

Steve Fankuchen is a resident of Alameda.

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