By George Skelton, December 21, 2014
An artist's rendering shows a proposed train station of California's
$68-billion high-speed-rail project. (California High Speed Rail
In the holiday spirit, here's something cheerful to say about the
California bullet train if Gov. Jerry Brown ever gets it assembled:
It would be a whole lot more passenger-friendly than demeaning air travel.
torturous, long security lines. No stripping off your belts and shoes.
No pat-downs or X-rays. No inhuman stares. No re-dressing.
Instead, Welcome Aboard.
Use the tray table anytime. No need for a seatbelt. Recline and relax.
there is still a caboose load of questions about this $68-billion
project, which is projected to cost double what voters were promised
back in 2008 when they approved $9 billion in bonds to help build a
500-mile high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
the escalated cost, is it really worth it? This would be by far the
most expensive state public works project ever. Is this the top spending
priority for a state that has hundreds of billions of dollars in
infrastructure needs — not only for commuter rail, transit and highways,
Universities have been shortchanged while
students have shouldered higher tuition. Courtrooms have been shuttered
for lack of money.
But most of all, even if it were a sound
investment, where would the state get all those dollars to build a
bullet train? No state anywhere ever has. It's a job for nations that
can print money and private financiers who envision an ultimate profit.
far, the federal government has kicked in only $3.3 billion, and
Congress is vowing no more. Investors have not put up a dime.
The money situation is starting to look less gloomy, but more about that later.
a recent comment by Jeff Morales, chief executive officer of the
California High-Speed Rail Authority, caught my attention. He said: "I
guarantee that you can keep your shoes on."
Morales was on a panel
about the future and asserted that there'll be a lot less security
harassment in train depots than at airports because there's not the
"For one thing, you can't take a train anywhere but on a track."
Later I called him.
said that behind the scenes, the high-speed rail agency has been
conferring with the California Highway Patrol and local law enforcement
about passenger protection.
He envisions cops eyeballing
passengers, but not screening them. There'll be security cameras, but no
intrusive metal detectors. That could save travelers, say, a good half
Get to the airport 15 minutes before departure and you've
lost your seat. But get to the train depot 15 minutes ahead and walk
flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco, on paper, may take an
hour-plus. But add to that driving way out to the airport, parking and
running up the blood pressure while packed into a security line, and
it's a three-hour-plus trip. The train trip is designed for two hours,
40 minutes. But the depot is downtown, and there's no security line.
referred me to a security expert, Brian Jenkins, a senior adviser at
RAND Corp. and an analyst at the Mineta Transportation Institute. He has
written a lot about terrorist threats.
The only place in the
world where high-speed rail passengers are screened is for the Eurostar
that tunnels beneath the English Channel between London, Paris and
Brussels, Jenkins says. That's because when the tunnel was built, the
British were threatened by Irish Republican Army terrorists, he says,
and recently they've been concerned about illegal immigration.
all other high-speed lines, he says, there's no screening even of
luggage, except occasionally when there are random checks of riders and
their bags during high terrorism alerts.
obsessed with bringing down airlines," Jenkins says. "A bomb in an
airplane can bring it down, killing everyone on the plane and where it
lands. A bomb in a train station or even on a train can do no greater
damage than at a crowded shopping mall or movie theater."
"And last time I looked, these things run on rails. A terrorist can't
exactly hold a gun to the engineer's head and say, 'Take me to Syria.'"
OK, I'm definitely sold on the convenience and comfort.
like many, I chortle at the route — Madera to Bakersfield for the
initial leg. Construction has already started on that lightly populated
stretch. Brown is trying to get far enough down the track to discourage
any turning back by his eventual successor.
The financing is starting to look conceivable.
train was jump-started this year when the Legislature agreed to Brown's
request for $650 million in cap-and-trade greenhouse emission fees.
more important, the lawmakers allocated 25% of future cap-and-trade
revenue to the project. That could mean between $500 million and $1
billion-plus annually for construction. That is attracting private
interest, Morales says.
"We're having serious discussions" with investors, he asserts.
OK, show us the money when it gets here.
Meanwhile, the bullet train may still be a fantasy. But at least it's a pleasant dream — not a nightmare like air travel.