Last month, California's governor quietly killed an effort to improve commuter rail near L.A. Why? He wanted to focus on a bullet train. Don't agree? You're wrong. America needs fast trains.
The argument isn't a new one, but that doesn't make it any less relevant. We live in one of the richest, most tech-friendly nations on the planet, our president speaks in complete sentences, and yet, we've been struggling with the transport question for decades. No matter how well-intentioned, high-speed ground travel always fizzles at the starting gate.
Naturally, Jalopnik enjoys endorsing things that haul ass, but to put it bluntly, fast trains rip our skulls open. Below, the pros. If you can think of a con — and initial setup cost doesn't count — then take to the comments.
Benefits for Society and the Environment:
• High-speed trains draw their power from grid electricity. Take issue with the carbon emissions from that much juice? Reducing carbon output from a stationary powerplant is about a thousand times simpler than doing the same with a mobile — i.e., wheeled - one.
• Net energy efficiency per passenger mile is superior to that of automobiles and jets. Period. If that weren't enough, compared with asphalt, the enviromental damage from railway infrastructure is almost nonexistent.
• Don't want to die? Rail safety figures are infinitely superior to those of passenger cars and, as far as we know, still outpacing those of passenger aircraft.
• Community-friendly infrastructure: rail stations are both less intrusive and produce less noise than airports.
Benefits for the Average Joe:
• More comfortable than air travel.
• Way the hell faster than a car.
• Costs per seat-mile traveled are lower than with aircraft, which usually leads to lower fares.
• Quieter than a jet, and the boarding/deboarding process is substantially faster.
• Door-to-door times on short hauls (300-500 miles) are superior to those of a jet.
• Train stations can be placed in city centers, rather than distanced from them. (Hello, major airports.)
Benefits for the Car Guy:
• Gets people off our roads, leaving them more wide open to, you know, us!
Those are the hard points, and while they make sense on paper, they admittedly don't stir any emotion. You have to ride a fast train — France's Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV), for example — to understand.
Frankly, the only word for the experience is civilized. Because the weight and size restrictions of an aircraft almost don't exist, trains like the TGV can have big comfy seats, giant windows, huge overhead bins, and in-car luggage racks, not to mention perks like lounges — things that are relatively impossible on a low-fare passenger aircraft. When the train pulls into the station, twelve doors open, and everyone is off within five minutes. The servicing follows, but there are no umbilical hoses, fuel trucks, or dudes in yellow vests waving flashlight batons. For the most part, the servicing process consists of one guy wheeling a cart out to restock the food in the lounge car. Because there are twelve doors and no jetway bottleneck, reboarding takes about ten minutes.
The train pulls out of the station and crawls through a switchyard with the same bumps and clanks as an Amtrak hoopty, but as soon as it exits and drops onto its main line, the ride turns Magic. You feel the same gentle shove of acceleration that you get on any other train, but with one difference: It doesn't stop until the trackside poles, the ones just outside your window, are ripping by in streaks. It's quiet. It's roomy. And then — just like that — you're bumping up against 200 mph.
So far, anyone who's boarded a 737 should be drooling with envy. The negatives are obvious: It's not as fast as flying, and it's not as much fun as driving a car. But try this in your Vista Cruiser: At a few miles per hour short of a Bugatti Veyron's top speed, Pierre T. Frenchy can get up, walk to the lounge, buy a beer, and suck it down while standing up and looking out the window.
Makes the airborne cattle car look kind of dull, doesn't it?
Edit: Because so many people have pointed this out in the comments, it probably needs to be said: Yes, HSR is highly impractical for a large nation like the United States. Yes, believing that it will happen in the forseeable future is foolish. And yes, there are a million other things that the money would be better spent on, not the least of which is proper light rail in a great many urban areas. This post was intended to be a pie-in-the-sky love song and conversation starter, not an answer unto itself.
Photo Credit: Getty Images, Nguyen Dai / Flickr