California Says 'Yea' to High-Speed Rail Network

In November, Californians voted 53 to 47 to Proposition 1A, approving high-speed train service from the Bay Area to southern California, with over 800 miles of track. Meanwhile, in the Midwest, transportation officials are moving to push through a plan to establish a bullet-train network that would connect cities in nine states, with Chicago at the center.

And Congress recently passed legislation that would give Amtrak $13 billion over the next five years to encourage development of high-speed rail corridors.

The frontrunner for chief of the Department of Transportation, Minnesota congressman James Oberstar, has said, "We're at a transformational point in intercity passenger rail service."

With all this movement in rails during the airline and energy crises, just how likely is a high-speed train network linking American cities coast-to-coast, similar to France's high-speed trains?

In a recent interview, an Amtrak spokesperson said high-speed rail in the U.S. cannot follow the European model because of the long distances between cities and the type of train tracks currently used (Sept. 22 MN, p. 22).

Jo Linda Thompson, executive director of the Association for California High-Speed Trains, disagreed. "For train tracks under 700 miles, high-speed rail is definitely an option in the U.S.," she said. "I believe that if we do this correctly, we will be the model, and it can—and will—happen across the U.S."

Thompson reinforced that she was not talking about a cross-country high-speed rail line from New York to Los Angeles, but a system that links major cities in common regions. She also pointed out that high-speed rail would far from eclipse air travel, but rather supplement and enhance it.

Getting travelers from short distances to Los Angeles International Airport, for instance, is difficult for those who are not near a local airport, Thompson said. And adding routes from LAX is not an option.

"LAX can't expand any further," said Thompson. It is "landlocked by communities."

According to the California group's website (www.highspeedtrainsforca.com), a 220-mph California train network can be created in stages over 20 years, freeing up airports for long-haul flights.

Like travelers, the environment and economy will be winners. Prop 1A, Thompson said, will reduce carbon emissions by 1.4 million cars and save 22 million barrels of oil in the state annually.

What did Thompson say to critics of high-speed rail service?

"Japan's first high-speed train is in a museum," she noted. "We had to get to this economic and resource crisis to show us that the time is now."

Originally published Dec. 15, 2008