California's High-Speed Rail Won't Go Nowhere

German high-speed trains started in the provinces, too, but now have a fast, efficient and popular system crisscrossing the nation.
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Since California announced it had funding for a short, Central Valley leg of its planned high-speed rail system, critics have made a point of (disingenuously) scratching their heads. Ed Morissey at Hot Air argues that rail officials in California have "managed to break ground in an effort to connect two central-state communities so small that one of them is unincorporated, for service that will connect fewer people than live in Anaheim."

If he meant Borden and Corcoran, the two rural end points of the line, they have a combined population somewhere north of 25,000. But the main stations along this first stretch of the system won't be in Borden and Corcoran. They'll be in Fresno and Hanford and, eventually, Bakersfield. Metropolitan Fresno alone (942,000) dwarfs Anaheim (354,000).

Population numbers aren't the point, though, because the short rural section is just a slow start to something large and complicated — which is the right way to build high-speed rail, if you look at the systems in Europe.

The idea behind starting in the Central Valley is to bring jobs to a hardscrabble part of California. It will also accomplish some work on an uncomplicated stretch before the lines have to run through dense neighborhoods like Palo Alto or Anaheim. That makes sense on the surface, but resistance even at this early stage is intense. A few writers and politicians have damned the Central Valley line as a "train to nowhere."

EUROPEAN DISPATCHMichael Scott Moore complements his standing feature in Miller-McCune magazine with frequent posts on the policy challenges and solutions popping up on the other side of the pond.

EUROPEAN DISPATCHMichael Scott Moore complements his standing feature in Miller-McCune magazine with frequent posts on the policy challenges and solutions popping up on the other side of the pond.

European high-speed rail, of course, wasn't built overnight; in fact the lines took decades to develop. The German system nominally began in the 1980s, with a stretch of track between the international metropolises of Hamm and Gütersloh, where an experimental train hit a record-setting speed of 197 mph in 1985.

The stretch of land in question was a provincial part of the industrial region northeast of Cologne, in what was then West Germany. But the fully loaded passenger trips were just showcase rides, and because of politics and bureaucratic hassles, German high-speed rail trundled embarrassingly behind the French TGV until the '90s, when the fall of communism opened longer, more logical routes between east and west.

Now one of the best-used lines runs from Berlin to Cologne. It passes over the Hamm-Gütersloh stretch, which is no longer the most modern leg of the German system. It veers through a few medium-sized cities, just as the California train might veer to Palmdale; it has to slow near the cities for local traffic. But at regular intervals the Deutsche Bahn system can let its fast trains sprint, and several times per day, an InterCity-Express runs from Berlin to Cologne — about 260 miles — in a cool 4.5 hours.

This is nowhere near cutting-edge speed. Germans grumble that their trains can move faster. But it does the job: Airport check-in lines, security lines, luggage lines and the sheer inconvenience of airport locations make a competing one-hour plane journey add up to three or four hours of travel.

The difference isn't a matter of half an hour more or less; the difference is that most of the travel time, on a train, belongs to the passenger. You can do real work in four hours while your life isn't being wasted in airport cattleyards.

Deutsche Bahn made an early decision not to build expensive dedicated lines but to integrate its fast trains with the mixed national network. The result has been years of fudging and re-routing, track renovation and rolling-stock modernization. The current system is a still-shifting patchwork of lines that range in top speed from 160 to 300 kph.

Also on Miller-McCune.com, how the idea of high speed rail died in Texas while thriving in Spain during the 1980s.

These drawbacks are just the flip side of the project's good sense. What Germany didn't try to do is pay for its fast trains all at once. Industry moves faster than government, so by the time you finish any sophisticated line there are bound to be newer, faster, more interesting cars that demand even newer track. Deutsche Bahn is constantly playing catch-up with its own domestic technology, and the same Siemens-built stock serving ICE lines can sprint at far higher speeds on spanking-new tracks in China or Spain.

Tja is the term of philosophical regret a German might use. That's just how high-speed trains work. They're not perfect magical beasts, and no one should expect them to be. But they do sometimes start in the countryside.

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