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Low-Speed Rail: California’s Other Option

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California’s controversial high-speed rail project is barely under way, but it’s already been beaten by other options. Under the best of assumptions, the (subsidized) cost of a trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles when the bullet train is complete will be $86, plus “last mile” costs of traveling to and from the train station. The journey, door to door, will take about four hours–that is, if the high-speed rail makes the journey in under three hours as originally advertised, which it will not.

This past week, I traveled from L.A. to the Bay area, using only public transportation and Southwest Airlines. From my door to my destination in San Francisco, the trip took about four hours, and cost just $77.50. The question therefore is why taxpayers should foot the bill for a train that will cost more per trip, without being much faster. Another, even better question is whether customers who need to reach either city in a hurry would choose a more expensive train over a flight.

The project started under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, but has been enthusiastically embraced by Gov. Jerry Brown. As it has run into financial problems, right-of-way issues, opposition from Republicans in Washington, and environmental objections, Gov. Brown has defended it as a way to save money on highways and airports, as well as an expression of the state’s “spirit.” The Obama administration says it high-speed rail will fight climate change. None of that is true.

If the idea is to move more travelers onto rail, there are “low-speed” options. Currently, Amtrak operates one train per day, the Coast Starlight, from San Francisco to L.A in either direction, over ten hours. It is spectacular, but impractical. The only other alternative, the San Joaquin line, could be faster but requires a bus on the stretch between L.A. and Bakersfield. Train lines exist on that route, but they are devoted to freight. Surely that is a better place to begin working on a solution.


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