February 23, 2009

California Makes Move For Bullet Train

After nearly a century and a half of rail history, trains are being hailed as integral to California's growth in the 21st century.

California officials are preparing to invest billons of dollars into a rail line that will model Japan's Shinkansen bullet train.

The 800-mile system will support trains capable of running 220 mph, and will cost nearly half of the $100 billion that would have been spent on new highways.

Supporters say the trains will reduce environmental damage, and create 450,000 jobs that will boost the California economy. 

Officials hope the system can be complete by 2030, and foresee it carrying 90 million passengers a year.

"We need a high-speed rail. Our rail system in America is so old, we are driving the same speed as we did 100 years ago," said California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"We should do what other countries do. All over the world we see high-speed rail. We should do the same in this country, and especially in this state."

Proponents say California's transportation must adapt to increasing transportation demands.  The state is expected to reach 50 million residents by 2030.

"It would be difficult, if not impossible, to add that kind of airport capacity and freeway capacity," said Quentin Kopp, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

"Plus, the environmental benefit is just as important, with 12 million barrels of oil saved each year."

Critics of the plan believe it will never be complete, and will put an economic strain on a state already in financial trouble. 

They believe the train system will have little environmental impact and will not be able to attract as many passengers as proponents envision.

According to a report by the Reason Foundation, a libertarian group, "There is little likelihood that the passenger or revenue projections will be met, that the aggressive travel times will be achieved, that the service levels promised will be achieved, that the capital and operating costs will be contained consistent with present estimates, that sufficient funding will be found or that the system will be profitable."

Currently eleven nations have high-speed rail systems.  The proposed system in California would be the first in the United States.

The California system's first phase would see lines built from San Francisco to Los Angeles.  The initial phase would be completed within the next 10 years, and would cost $33 billion.

A second phase would see lines reaching San Diego, and Sacramento.  The second phase is projected to be completed by 2030 for an extra $15 billion.

Critics believe costs for the system could increase to $81 billion, and could lose up to $4 billion a year when in operation.

In November, voters passed a proposition giving $10 billion in bonds to start on the new system.  Engineers hope to begin construction in 2011.

State officials are optimistic that they will receive $12 to $16 billion in government backing, partly due to the Obama administration's $787 billion stimulus package.

The California League of Conservation Voters support the new system, and David Allgood, the group's Southern California director, believes the high-speed trains can provide many benefits for the environment.

"The advantages are great. It's more energy efficient and cleaner to move people around on trains than in planes or cars," Allgood said in a telephone interview with AFP.

"There are just too many people on the roads. High-speed rail will save a lot on emissions."


Image 1: Conceptual view of high speed rail over the Altamont Pass west of Tracy, CA. Courtesy California High-Speed Rail Authority/Newlands & Company

Image 2: Shinkansen bullet train. Courtesy Wikipedia


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