Making Tracks to High-Speed Trains


Warren Buffett’s company Berkshire Hathaway bought Burlington Northern Santa Fe earlier this year for $26 billion, and it got me thinking about trains.

Over the last decade or so, I’ve traveled to Europe several times. And after departing the plane, I religiously use Europe’s fine rail system, which links cities and towns all over the continent.

European rails are convenient, clean, easy to board and almost always on time. When a train is set to depart at 1400 hours, it almost always rolls out of the station right at 1400 hours. There are no passengers held up in long security and bag-check lines. There are no delays for ice on the runways, neighboring thunderstorms or volcanic ash.

And I find train travel through the countryside relaxing. Some trains on the continent can travel nearly 200 miles an hour. France’s TGV line, for example, covers the 500 miles from Paris to Marseilles in just over three hours. Maybe with Proposition 1A’s passage by California’s voters in 2008, that will become a reality in our state and Southern California by 2030?

Colorful lines

Today, L.A.’s metropolitan area has a fine burgeoning light-rail commuter system. We’ve got the Red, Blue, Green and Gold lines, which link many parts of our vast city together. However, much more track is needed. We need to install new Platinum lines here in a big way, and Proposition 1A’s adoption was a big first step.

Nearly 800 miles of high-speed rail lines are proposed for construction – linking Los Angeles to San Francisco and Sacramento and beyond. Funding will initially come from the proposition’s $9.95 billion bond measure and a recently announced $2.25 billion contribution from Washington.

Yes, it’s time our state takes this important first step of emulating Europe. High-speed lines should cross California’s borders, too; linking several major western cities and beyond.

Can you imagine just how great it will be to hop on an express train at L.A.’s downtown Union Station at 6 a.m. and be on time for your 9 o’clock business meeting in San Francisco’s Union Square with Starbucks in hand? Or how about shooting from downtown Los Angeles on the “flyer” through California’s Central Valley, paralleling the I-5 at 185 miles an hour, and arriving at the state’s capitol in less than three hours? Just think how great it would be to leave Los Angeles with family or friends for the weekend, after boarding Siemens’ 200 mile-an-hour train, arriving in Las Vegas 90 minutes later.

No doubt, today’s infrastructure costs to build and maintain such an extensive and high-speed rail system will run into tens of billions. The big problem is how to pay for it all? The $12.2 billion allocated thus far is a good start, but final cost estimates for 800 miles of track begin at $45 billion. Some industry professionals believe costs will approach $90 billion. I suspect another wave or two of state bond measures, more help from Washington and private support will be needed to complete the project in 20-25 years.

However, it just seems to me to be worth all the planning and investing; it’s the smart thing to do. The airlines might not like the idea, but the hotels in Vegas would probably love it. The benefits to our quality of life, with abundant fast trains to board in Los Angeles, in other cities in California and across neighboring borders, should far outweigh the costs over time – as I see it.

Great progress for Southern California and adjoining states would be made. Our freeways could become much less crowded and easier to drive as millions of our citizens’ clamor to board the fast Platinum lines in two decades. The trains will become a great way to move more people around, safely, and help lighten highway use; just as California’s population expands by millions in coming decades.

Vegas trips

The sometimes nightmarish and dangerous drive from Los Angeles along the I-15 to Las Vegas and back could be avoided. Lives, undoubtedly, would be saved on our roads as Angelenos abandon their cars and adopt a much safer form of transportation. Our air quality may vastly improve, too, and no dollars can be attached to that.

Yes, in 2010 I see great things ahead for trains in Southern California and our country – just as Buffett does.

Today, we need to build our high-speed trains and tracks, and not let time slip by. I just hope I’ll live long enough to witness new spikes and be able to jump on board the Friday night 90-minute “flyer” to the Vegas Strip.

Ted Lux writes on business and societal matters. He has been involved in real estate lending in the L.A. area for more than 20 years. He lives in Playa del Rey.

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