Photos by David Loutzenheiser, (left to right) Ariake Island, Tokyo; cockpit of the ICE (InterCity Express) Train, Netherlands; new ICE in Duesseldorf, Germany.

I lost all of my notions about what travel should be last year on a drizzly morning in Tokyo. As the long, sloped nose of the white Shinkansen swished quietly up to the platform, our pre-assigned doors hissed open, revealing a roomy, airplanelike cabin. We were moving seconds later. The train accelerated smoothly, humming softly as we flew faster and faster, pressing us back in our seats. We rocketed south over the city on elevated tracks, watching the gray expanse of wet suburbs blur into rolling countryside. It felt like we were floating. A cheerful young girl sold drinks and snacks from a cart. We stepped off the train 300 miles and two and a half hours later in sunny downtown Kyoto.

I hadn''t given high-speed rail much thought before, but the trip was a shocking illumination of what we Americans missing and just how tragically backward our transportation policies still are.

For us, a trio of Californians, this was a utopian vision of a science-fiction future; for the Japanese, however, the extraordinary had become ordinary. Japan started its high-speed rail system almost 40 years ago, eager to prove itself to a postwar world when it hosted the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. Americans have spent that same 40 years starving their own railroads by throwing subsidies at highways and airlines.

But Californians may reverse that trend by building a network of trains connecting the state''s major cities at speeds topping 220 mph. State officials are planning a 700-mile high-speed rail system that would shoot passengers from the Bay Area to Los Angeles in two hours. Construction could begin by 2006, with service starting in 2010. The state projects nine million intercity and commuter trips a year by 2020.

The technology would be different from anything ever built in the United States (no, the Amtrak Acelas on the East Coast aren''t true high-speed rail). California''s plan would use computer-controlled systems running the kind of lightweight electric trains already crisscrossing Japan and most of Europe. Trains will run at high speed on dedicated tracks, crossing above or below streets and freeways and fenced off from everything else. Only high-speed trains will use the system.

The goal is to create an alternative to other modes of travel that are already overtaxed. California''s population has tripled in the last 50 years and, according to the state Department of Finance, will hit 59 million by 2040. Much of that population inhabits the sprawling fringes of major cities, requiring efficient commuter service to work, study and, in some cases, shop. It''s hard to think of a place that needs high-speed rail more than this state. In addition to the environmental argument that the trains would cut pollution by getting cars off the freeways, supporters say the plan would help revitalize cities.

The state agency charged with building the system is the California High Speed Rail Authority, created by the Legislature in 1996. It consists of just a handful of staffers working out of a small Sacramento office, but it has hired an army of environmental consultants who will finish the environmental-impact report by the end of next year. But, pressing needs or not, the authority won''t be doing much of anything until it can get that first infusion of cash.

To fund the first phase of the plan, state Senator Jim Costa (D-Fresno) authored a bill to put a $9 billion bond on the 2004 state ballot. The bond would cover about half of the cost of the first 400-mile segment, between Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Lines to Sacramento, San Diego and the Inland Empire would come later. In addition to the bond, the rest of the money would come from federal sources or private capital.

The bill sailed through the Senate but stalled in the Assembly during the chaotic last days of the legislative session. To get undecided lawmakers onboard, Costa added another $1 billion to fund existing rail service around the state. In a late-night session, just days before the August 31 deadline for bills, Costa prowled the Assembly floor trying to lock up the last few votes he needed to get to 54. Assembly Majority Leader Marco Firebaugh (D-Cudahy), however, slammed the bond as a waste that would compete with schools for money (Capitol insiders say Firebaugh didn''t like the way Costa voted on a controversial farm-worker bill).

When the Assembly voted, the bill still stood a handful of votes short. But after a break, during which Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson (D-Culver City) leaned on reluctant members, Firebaugh and others came back to give the $10 billion bond the exact number of votes it needed to pass. TKAssemblyman Fred Keeley supported the measure from the start.

Governor Gray Davis, who had kept quiet on the bill for months, signed it September 19.

Of course, $10 billion sounds steep, but the state treasurer says it''s well within the state''s bonding capacity, and in today''s dollars it''s still less than the bond that paid for the state''s aqueduct system in the ''60s. Compared to other big projects, it''s a bargain.

The bond doesn''t have any organized opposition so far, but future foes will likely argue that the state should be putting its money into freeways, which everyone uses. Supporters say that''s exactly the point--everyone uses the freeways. High-speed rail backers also point out that fast trains are able to carry several hundred passengers at a time while running just minutes apart, giving them a much higher capacity than any other mode of travel and making them a smarter investment.

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Years ago, when the state was first starting to study the issue, the CEO of Southwest Airlines claimed that he could fly everyone in the state where they wanted to go for free with the $25 billion it would take to build the whole 700-mile rail network. But Rod Diridon Sr., chairman of the rail authority''s board, is quick to note that, outside of the capital costs, operations will produce a "net positive cash flow" that can fund other expansions around the state.

From downtown San Francisco, the route will follow the peninsula to San Jose, head east toward Merced, then shadow Highway 99 south through Fresno to Bakersfield. From there, the train would head to Los Angeles, either by tracing the Grapevine through the Tehachapi Mountains from Bakersfield to Santa Clarita or by swinging east through Palmdale and the Antelope Valley. The Palmdale route would add time to the trip but wouldn''t incur the expense of blasting tunnels through the Tehachapis. The train would then head east to Riverside, then south along I-15 to San Diego.

Supporters say the train, at 220 mph, easily beats both driving and flying. While planes are faster than trains, it''s easy to spend an hour or two driving to the airport, going through security, and waiting to board an hourlong flight. Express trains would make the trip in two and a half hours.

"The air corridor between Los Angeles and the Bay Area is the most heavily traveled in the world, and the most congested," Diridon says. "High-speed rail will offer an alternative to that." In the meantime, Diridon grumbles, the U.S. is falling behind the rest of the world. "It''s going to be built; it''s just a matter of time. If we do it immediately, it''ll be less expensive. If we do it later, it''ll be more expensive."

If high-speed rail flops in California, the state won''t be alone. In Florida, an effort to link Tampa, Orlando and Miami died in 1999 after Governor Jeb Bush killed the plan a few days after taking office. In Texas, a consortium called Texas TGV won a state contract for a line between Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. Lobbying by Dallas-based Southwest Airlines helped derail the deal in 1994. So far, the airline that dominates most of California''s intercity air routes hasn''t said anything about the high-speed rail plan. It could, however, be a partner: The authority may contract out operations to the private sector.

Meanwhile, as Japan and Europe pump billions into improving, expanding and perfecting their own fast trains, most of which operate in the black, America continues to lavish an equivalent amount on freeways and airports. But just because U.S. rail service lags decades behind nearly every other industrialized country doesn''t mean it''s too late to start laying new tracks.

This article first appeared in the LA Weekly, 2002.

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