Strait – On: History of American transportation – California and the Supertrain

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The United States is sorely behind in one aspect of public transportation: The super train.

■ Rusty Strait / Senior Reporter

The American urge to travel began with the Pilgrims coming here from England in 1642.
The Massachusetts was merely a jump off spot for all points west. From there, we have gone from ship to shank’s mare back to ships and then to the skies, ever and always seeking land beyond the horizon and finally, as a most recent ambition, beyond the horizons, into space.
However, all transportation, as we know it, begins on the ground and that’s where to start in search of a super means to take us from one place to another. In past episodes we’ve covered urban and cross country in the United States. The United States is sorely behind in one aspect of public transportation: The super train. California, under the aegis of Governor Jerry Brown has launched the first major endeavor in that direction.

California leads the country – again?
For more years than anyone cares to remember high speed trains have been plotted, planned and fell flat in the United States. None more so than in California. Not too long ago there was much excitement and noise about a fast rail from Los Angeles and Las Vegas casinos. Like a long hot summer it all cooled down as the golden leaves of autumn faded into winter.
However the new super-dooper rail system from Los Angeles to San Francisco is way beyond the architect stage. Routes are being designed; money has been allocated and action is on the forefront. Governor Brown is leaving office. A new governor will be elected in November.
Will the newly elected governor continue the project or will the current progress blow up as some kind of past administration pipe dream? We shall see. Here is the current situation:
The California High-speed Rail Authority was established in 1996 but was not actuated until 2008 when the California voters approved the issuance $9 billion in bonds for a high speed rail to begin construction. In January 2010, the White House provided $225 billion for California High Speed Rail. During the following two year period another $4 billion was granted in high-speed-rail funding. More funds were later allocated by the state. Money, money, money. Yet, progress seems to be at a standstill.
Budgets have been recalculated, legal battles fought, and changes in proposed routes and stations have been made. The first link has nothing to do with Los Angeles to Las Vegas nor the Inland Empire. The plan as first conceived would eventually link San Diego to San Francisco via Los Angeles. Eventually the tracks would service Sacramento, Central Valley, and beyond with an eventual link north through Oregon and on to Seattle. It is to be built in two phases.
According to the latest plans, phase one will connect downtown Los Angeles, the Inland Empire, Orange County and San Diego covering a route that encompasses 520 miles to be completed by 2029. Phase two includes The Inland Empire, San Diego and points north. But not to hold your breath – there is no start or completion dates for the second additions.
According to those supposedly in the know, the initial construction segment of high-speed tracks runs from Merced to Bakersfield in the Central Valley. Simultaneously there are “bookend” and connectivity investments including electrification of the San Francisco Peninsula Corridor used by Caltrain, improvements to tracks and signaling for both Metrolink in the Los Angeles area and Caltrain with better passenger interconnections for Caltrain, Amtrak and other Northern California rail lines. All of this includes stations, substations and options.
If Tesla and Branson are correct, we will have passengers landing on the moon before the first Super Trains unloads passengers from Southern California at some depot in San Francisco.

XpressWest to Las Vegas
A company calling itself XpressWest has been struggling for more than ten years to establish fast rail between Los Angeles’ Union Station and Las Vegas so gamblers can more quickly dispose of their hard earned cash at the glittering casinos along the Vegas strip. Good luck to that, too. Perhaps settlers on Mars will use high-powered telescopes to watch these behemoths of earth crawl along the desert as they dine on whatever is being served on the Red Planet at any given moment. But hold on a sec; here comes Elon Musk, another multi-billionaire with money to burn who claims that the California plans are too expensive and too slow. In August of 2013, he proposed a high-level Alpha Design for a Hyperloop transit system concept which he claims would travel three times as fast at a tenth of the rail proposal. He was quickly assailed by critics and doubters.
He probably had a sudden pang of sympathy for Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. As Peggy Lee once declared in a song popular during the 1950’s, “Everything’s Moving too fast.” Shall reason prevail?
According to a Department of Transportation report issued during the Obama
administration, four steps should be taken before introducing the country into some new SuperTrain theology:

1. Prioritize maintenance and repair before funding new construction projects.
2. Encourage alternative forms of movement that rely less on “the highway program.”
3. Reward innovation through competition and expanding performance measures.
4. Allocate transportation funds that more directly address current transportation needs.

File Photo
Rusty Strait.

Supertrains around the world
Meanwhile, back in the lands we emigrated from in those backward countries, where our forefathers originated, there seems to be no problems with producing super trains. For instance:
Taiwan: The THSR 700T is a series of high speed multiple unit trains manufactured in Taiwan that began operation in January 2007 between Taipei City and Kaohsiung. It operates at 186.4 mph and shortens the time between these two cities from four and a half hours to 90 minutes. Thirty of these monsters currently fly across the rails accommodating business cabin occupancy of 66 with standard class offering 923 seats. The cars are soundproof.
Italy: ETR 500 Frecciarossa, the fastest train service in Italy, also operates at speeds up to 186.4 mph operating between Milan, Rome and Naples with 72 connections daily. Composed of four main cabins: Standard class, premium class, business class and executive class. They are all sound proof and offer free Wi-Fi.
The AVG Italo (also Italian) operates at an average 223.6 mph. In 2007, it set a record test speed at 356.6 mph. Its route is between Rome and Naples.

France: France’s TGV duplex is a powerful vehicle reaches a maximum speed of 198 mph, operating on the SNCF railway. It began operation in December 2011 and seats 508 passengers. It is considered the most comfortable European train service. Also in France, the Alstom Euroduplex connects French, Swiss, German and Luxembourg rail network. A multi-system, double deck maxes out at 198.8 mph, began operation in December 2011 and accommodates 1020 passengers at a time.

Japan: Japan’s E5 series Shinkansen Hayabusa began service in Ma between Tokyo and Aomory (444.28 miles) in two hours and 56 minutes. It accommodates 731 passengers in ten cars. Compare that with Los Angeles-Inland Empire (90 miles) three to four hours during drive-time traffic.

Spain: The Spanish Talgo 350 (217.4 mph) operates with two driving cars and 12 cars serving passengers – providing video and audio devices at each seat. It currently operates between Barcelona and Madrid in two hours and 30 minutes at 250.84 mph and seats 404.

China: China’s Harmony CRH 380A, 236.12 mph. It is the second fastest operating train service in the world currently in commercial service. Operating electrically it set a speed record of 258.58 mph in October 2010 when they were put into regular service between Shanghai-Nanjing. It carries 494 passengers with all modern (and some new) accommodations. China’s Shanghai Maglev, the number one train in the world, (267.8 mph), began operating on Jan. 1, 2004. It floats on magnetic field between train and track allowing the train to fly over the track as there is no contact between train and track – seeming to float on air. The 18.95 mile from Long Yang Road and Pudong international airport takes seven minutes and 20 seconds, carrying 574 passengers with a ticket cost of US $8 and US $16 for VIP ticket.

Meanwhile back in our neck of the woods
While all of this Super Train yakity-yak goes on about fast trains and big dollars
California’s highways have become pairing lots, passenger trains are parked on side tracks to allow more important freight trains to pass.
In Hemet it looks like we’re going to separate North and South with an eight mile median down the middle of Florida Avenue and we can’t even get Metrolink into the valley. Supertrains? How about a snail with speed? Just sayin’

Rusty Strait can be reached at

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