Whatever Happened To ... California's vision of a high-speed train
By Walt Wiley
Sacramento Bee Staff Writer
(Published April 20, 2001)
It wasn't long after the Japanese and French began running their high-speed
rail service in the 1960s that such service between Northern California and
Southern California was being proposed.
That idea of a California bullet train is alive and well today. The
California High Speed Rail Authority lives today as a little state agency
with five employees, three of whom are on the road constantly, holding
hearings on routes and tending to the details that will be needed when
California's high-speed rail system is open for business along about 2020.
It will be an investment in public works on the order of the state water
project or the freeway system -- and it's going to happen -- said Dan
Leavitt, deputy director of the high-speed rail authority. He took time to
talk in the authority's cramped quarters upstairs in the rear of an office
building across from the Capitol.
This isn't just an improvement on existing rails that will allow 79 mph
trains to go up to 125 mph, he explained, but a whole new system of true
"bullet" trains that travel on dedicated rails at much higher speeds. Plans
call for a Y-shaped arrangement in which separate Sacramento, San Francisco
and Southern California branches join at Merced. They form a 700-mile system
on which trains could travel 200 mph or faster over most of its length.
It's an appealing concept, to hear Leavitt tell it.
A traveler from Sacramento to Los Angeles would board the train at the
Sacramento depot, either the present depot or a new one built quite close to
the old location, but not on the old tracks. High-speed trains will travel
on their own tracks that aren't shared with conventional trains nor crossed
at all, except by overpasses and underpasses.
"Anyone who's ridden the trains in Europe or Japan will tell you: It's
quiet, smooth. There's very little sense of motion even though you're going
over 200 mph. You can walk around, go get coffee, even hold a meeting --
there are tables for that," Leavitt said.
And two hours and nine minutes after whooshing out of the center of
Sacramento, passengers would be disembarking at Los Angeles' Union Station,
all for a fare envisioned at $41 in today's dollars.
It all will cost about $25 billion, but in the end the investment will pay
off, carrying 32 million intercity riders and 10 million commuters yearly
while generating $900 million in revenue, $300 million of which would be
returned to the state as surplus.
Right now, contractors are preparing environmental impact statements for the
entire system so that rights of way can be nailed down, Leavitt said, and in
a couple of years there will be a bond election to raise part of the money
for the system. There will also be federal funds and private investments
By the time the train is operational, people will be more than ready for it,
according to the business plan prepared for the system. Freeway traffic in
Los Angeles and San Francisco will average 15 mph by then and the air lanes
will be choked.
Airline interests are not at all eager to see the system built, not with the
San Francisco-Los Angeles air corridor the most heavily traveled in the
country. Ed Merlis, senior vice president of the Air Transport Association
airlines lobbying group, based in Washington, D.C., calls the whole idea
"What is it? Twenty-six billion dollars? For 5 percent of that, $1.2
billion, I can buy them eight 747s and have them up and running in six
months and they'd be carrying all the passengers those trains would carry,"
Merlis said. "Furthermore, if the system's a dud they can sell the airplanes
and get their money back. I don't think they'd be able to sell this train
On the other hand, John Shields of Chico, president of a rail passenger
group called Speedtrain, said his members are eager to see the system built
and dismayed that the public hasn't been asked to vote on the bonds for it
"The population keeps growing. Freeways and airports are jammed," Shields
said. "Now's the time."