When the federal government announced less than two weeks ago that California would get $2.25 billion to help develop a high-speed rail system, it made me wonder if the time has finally come for this good idea.
If built, California’s high-speed train, or HST, would be of great interest to the state’s business and political leaders. After all, you could board a train in Los Angeles, speed along at up to 220 miles an hour, and arrive in San Francisco a little more than two hours later. Spurs would go to other cities, such as Anaheim, San Diego and Sacramento.
Alas, the more I read up on it, the more I felt like I had boarded the blue train that Johnny Cash crooned about. There’s a real funding question and a seriously optimistic view of the ridership.
But let’s start with this basic question: If the HST existed and you were planning a trip to San Francisco, why would you consider boarding it?
Well, the cost of an HST ticket is projected to be 83 percent that of an airline ticket, so the train gets the nod on price over a plane.
However, if you were taking a family trip, you would likely take a car. It’s a much better deal, particularly if you have multiple kids.
If you were taking a business trip, you’d probably care less about the cost and more about the convenience of the train schedule vs. that of the airlines. We don’t know the train schedules yet, but since planes fly from LAX to San Francisco all times of the day and night (Southwest Airlines alone flies 11 times a day there), airlines would seem to have the advantage. A trip by air would be about an hour shorter than one by the HST, too.
Surface transportation to and from a train station is a wild card; it may be more convenient than the airport, but that depends on where your house or office is located. And let’s assume security procedures at an HST station would be about as rigorous as at the airport. (If not, I wouldn’t want to board the train.) So there may be no time saved there.
In short, the HST is no category killer. It would complement, not replace, your other transportation choices.
Yet the official projections assume it would dominate all forms of transportation and then some. The California High-Speed Rail Authority projects 13.5 million riders in the first year of operation, 2020, and 41 million by 2035.
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