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Next Stop: High-Speed Rail? The Future Of Trains In The U.S.

This image provided by the California High-Speed Rail Authority shows an artist's conception of a high-speed rail car in California. (AP/California High-Speed Rail Authority)
This image provided by the California High-Speed Rail Authority shows an artist's conception of a high-speed rail car in California. (AP/California High-Speed Rail Authority)

Around the world today, bullet trains are zipping people from one city to another at speeds as high 267 miles per hour. The closest thing we have to that in the U.S. is the Acela, which trundles along its New York-Boston leg at an average of around 80 miles per hour.

California was supposed to build the nation’s first truly high-speed rail line — the dream was San Francisco to Los Angeles. But that’s been scaled way back by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom.

And Tuesday, the Trump administration demanded California give back a $2.5 billion grant and is canceling close to another $1 billion marked for the project.

Why can't the U.S. get high-speed rail right? On Point spoke with Rod Diridon, chair emeritus of both the California High Speed Rail Authority and the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, and Noël Perry, founder of the market research and consulting business Transport Futures, to get the pros and cons on this transport.

Interview Highlights

On the original price tag of the California project: $77.3 billion

Rod Diridon: "That's the price tag. You don't get anything for free. And in America, the cost of construction is higher than the rest of the world. We're more congested. Our environmental laws are strong. We want them to be strong, but because of that, it takes a lot longer to prepare a project for construction, and our people are paid more, and we want that. So we're not going to change those things. It's a matter now of coming up with the money to build the projects. We can't be told that we don't have the money. We're the richest country. California's the richest state in the richest country in the world. And there are 12 other high-speed rail projects going in the world. So let's figure out a way to do it."

On how California might move forward with high-speed rail

Diridon: "I want to stress that we've had five governors now support the high-speed rail system in California, two Republicans and three Democrats, so it's not a partisan issue in our state. We're here to try to figure out a way to create the most efficient transportation system, both in terms of operations and in terms of energy. And all of those governors have agreed that high-speed rail is the right thing to do. It's a matter of figuring out a way to do it most effectively. And what Gov. Newsom is saying is that he's concerned about the delays, and we all are, that have plagued the current project. The cost has increased. Delay in a big project like that is equivalent to cost increases because of the inflation of construction costs. And so we just have to move ahead now, maybe scale the project back a bit in terms of some of the frills that were being developed. Every town can't have the system go under the town in a tunnel. We just have to realize that. And so it's a matter now of building the system as well as we can and we've got examples all over the world of how to do it right."

"In order to build these things, you have to use an army of petroleum-powered equipment. And so the emissions that come from building a 400-mile system ... would go a long way toward erasing any advantage that these trains have environmentally."

Noël Perry

On the financial and environmental costs of building the infrastructure for these trains

Noël Perry: "On an operating basis, trains are more fuel efficient than airplanes, if they're full. We know airplanes are full, we don't know that the trains will be full. They are in some routes, but not all. And the second, most important thing, is that in order to build these things, you have to use an army of petroleum-powered equipment. And so the emissions that come from building a 400-mile system, from San Francisco to LA, or the 3,000 or 4,000 miles people would like to do in this country, would go a long way toward erasing any advantage that these trains have environmentally. And that's the part from the emissions piece.

"There two more things we need to point out. First is that elsewhere in the world cities are far denser and far more adapted to this technology than in the United States. That's the first thing. By my count, there's only two corridors that could justify such trains: Chicago to New York and Boston to Washington. And even there, there are great difficulties because you need very dense cities with great transit. Now, New York has that. But most of the rest of the country does not have sufficient density to fill the trains without building huge parking lots."

"Here's my evaluation: There are three characteristics that are required. First off, the cities have to be big. And, certainly, San Francisco and LA are big. However, they're not nearly as big as the European examples you used. That's the first thing. The second thing is they have to be 300 to 500 miles apart, and in this case, LA to San Francisco is. The third thing is they have to be very dense downtown. And neither of those examples, LA or San Francisco, have anywhere near the density that Paris and London have, nor do they have the transit that supplies people to the stations."

On why American urban centers might actually suit high-speed rail systems

Diridon: "First of all, the cost of construction for high-speed rail is significant, but so was the cost of constructing the airport systems around the United States. Once those systems are built, though, the cost of operating high-speed trains is much less per passenger mile than the airlines, and the cost of the pollution, both in terms of the petroleum cost and the cost to society of that pollution, is much, much less per passenger mile. The second point is that the density is different in the United States. Well, that's just not true. San Francisco, downtown, is as dense a community as any you're going to find in the world. And, as fine a transportation system as most you're going to find in the world. And LA is rapidly catching up with the rest of the world with a huge investment in population-centering activities, in terms of construction in the downtown area and a far-reaching mass transportation system that will be second-to-none in the world. And Silicon Valley, around San Jose. San Jose, by the way, is is a very big area — 2 million people now at the population center. And they're building an outstanding feeder and distribution system based on commuter rail, metro rail, light rail, buses and bicycles, and so on. So those areas are going to have — currently have — and are going to have all of the amenities to support high-speed rail system that any other place in the world has. And by building the system ahead of time, there's a tendency to focus that growth around the transit programs rather than have the growth sprawl out."

"California's the richest state in the richest country in the world. And there are 12 other high-speed rail projects going in the world. So let's figure out a way to do it."

Ron Diridon

More from this debate

Perry: "The United States now has a cumulative federal deficit of $22 trillion. In order to build a system like that we're going to have to invest somewhere between $700 billion and a trillion dollars to do this. Where does that money come from? Here is the issue — I am 72 on both Social Security and Medicare. In the next 10 years, we're going to have to make extremely difficult choices as to what the government can fund and what it can't because our ability to borrow indefinitely is in its last decade. When that comes, the politicians, I hope will look at these questions and say, 'Do I want to cut Medicare and Medicaid in order to provide a little faster transportation between L.A. and San Francisco, or do I want to fund my Social Security and my Medicare?' And, of course, even if we have a national system, it will only serve 10 or 12 states. What about the other states who will be asked to fund this $700 billion to $1 trillion? So it's a fiscal question, very simple, political fiscal question. My position is that there are opportunity costs to that money, and those opportunity costs are way better than saving some fuel between L.A. and San Francisco."

Dirdon: "I'm 80 years old and I've been through an awful lot. I'm getting Social Security also. And I don't see those services being impacted by this kind of an investment at all except on a positive basis, by allowing our economy to work more effectively. And I think your estimation of $700 billion to a trillion dollars for a high-speed rail system is is ridiculously high. We're talking now about focusing on those areas where you'd be 400, 600, 700, 800 miles between population centers. And that really is only about four or five corridors, now, in the United States. And all of those are under study.

"The Brightline system down in Florida is in operation now. It isn't true high-speed rail, but it's good, and it's a step in the right direction. The system in Chicago to St. Louis is being built at a higher speed, not high speed. Acela is a step in the right direction. with 150 mile-an-hour service in one element of the corridor. Their average now is up to 81 miles an hour or so, and they've captured the airline market between Boston and Washington, D.C. It's a step in the right direction. but it's not a very big step.

"The point is that we're going to have to figure out a way to compete with the rest of the world, and the country that gets people to work and product to the market most efficiently wins that competition. We've been very lucky to have the facilities left over from the investments of the late 1800s and early 1900s that we've been able to use up to the 1950s. Now we're skating on that investment, and we have to continue to be competitive or we're not going to be the dominant economic factor in the world. If we are not, then, by golly, we're not going to collect the taxes to pay for Social Security payments."

Alex Schroeder adapted this interview for the web.

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