Forget High-Speed Rail–California Still Needs Low-Speed Rail

Forget High-Speed Rail–California Still Needs Low-Speed Rail

The San Joaquin Train is a glorious conveyance. It runs straight through California’s majestic Central Valley, which manages–even in this drought-stricken season–to burst with bounty, rows of corn alternating with vineyards and orchards. The Amtrak service from Sacramento to Los Angeles is comfortable, punctual, and convenient, with reliable wi-fi and fresh food. 

There is only one problem: it does not actually go to Los Angeles.

The train stops in Bakersfield, whereupon passengers must disembark and carry their bags over to a waiting bus that Amtrak operates for the final leg of the journey. There is already a line of rail track over the mountains into the Los Angeles area, but it is monopolized by freight trains. 

The inconvenience this causes Amtrak customers is considerable. An otherwise relaxed journey suddenly becomes chaotic, bumpy, unsettling and rather irritating.

Further west, there is another Amtrak line, the Pacific Surfliner. From San Diego to San Luis Obispo, it enjoys spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean–interrupted by a gritty but nonetheless fascinating industrial/suburban trip through L.A., the San Fernando Valley, Simi Valley and Ventura Country. 

Yet the Surfliner, too, runs out of track. Passengers traveling north must often disembark and take a bus north to San Jose to continue onward.

The sole exception is the Coast Starlight, which runs daily between Seattle and Los Angeles, and does not require a bus. But it is a sightseeing train, not a commuting one. It only runs once a day in either direction, leaving Sacramento at 6:35 a.m. and only arriving in L.A. at 9:00 p.m.–or departing from L.A. at 10:10 a.m. and reaching Sacramento at 11:59 p.m. 

And that is just when the train is on time, which it frequently is not.

It is rather odd to be spending so much money–$68 billion is the current estimate–on high-speed rail when California does not yet have a serious low-speed rail infrastructure. 

Upgrading the ordinary rail system, adding more frequent trains, and securing right-of-way for passenger trains over freight trains is surely a cheaper option than developing an entirely new system with unproven demand and complex technical and legal pitfalls.

If California cannot negotiate the challenge of low-speed rail, how will high-speed rail be any different? Would it not make sense, for fiscal and environmental reasons, to upgrade the existing rail system before risking the state’s future solvency on what could amount to little more than a joyride? 

One suspects that those who are so enthusiastic about our future public transportation system have spent little time using the one we have.