Dana Gabbard: Yes on High Speed Rail


(As we’ve already seen today with Measure R, the campaign for and against Proposition 1A, a bonding measure to pay for High Speed Rail, is also heating up as the weather cools down.  Today, the Times profiled the efforts to support and oppose the ballot prop.  Speaking for those in favor, Dana Gabbard writes below some of the many reasons that Californians should support High Speed Rail in a couple of weeks.)

While attending a stakeholders meeting for one of Metro’s long range
plans about a decade ago I was listening to the comments of
someone from the League of Women Voters discussing our challenges in
dealing with traffic 15-20 years from now. And it struck me that she
was assuming that most people would still be getting around in
automobiles. And I had a sudden epiphany, one of those rare nuggets of
insight that help shape my approach to advocacy. What I realized is
often the great challenge new ideas face isn’t facts or cost but
dealing with perceptions and assumptions. This comes to mind as I
recall a conversation I had a few years later with a reporter from the
business section of the Los Angeles Times. Somehow the subject turned
to the proposal for a statewide bullet train network. She stated "Dana,
I just don’t see it". I believe the main challenge the high speed rail
faces isn’t feasibility–the technology is well established with a
sterling safety record (the only major high speed train accident
occurred in Germany in 1998)–but the changes implicit in its creation
which challenges people’s conception of our state. But if it makes
sense than while it will be a dauntingly expensive project and on a
scale akin to the building of the state aqueduct, it really comes down
to priorities and a matter of will, if we desire to have it.

In my recent commentary on Measure R I wrote about its path to the ballot being like a soap opera.

But it has nothing on the proposed bullet train which literally has been 15+ years in the making. It was in 1993
that an Intercity High-Speed Rail Commission was established to study
the feasibility and advisability of a high speed network. After the
Commission concluded that such a system was worth pursuing the California
High-Speed Rail Authority was established in 1996 to begin planning it.
In 2002 after extreme exertions State Senator Jim Costa was able to
have placed on the ballot $10 billion of bonds as a down payment for a
bullet train network. Slated to be voted on in 2004 the vicissitudes of
politics caused the measure to be bumped twice before the body politic
decided this was the year it deserved its shot. And like Measure R this
is a do or die situation–if the program doesn’t go forward soon
environmental documents are in danger of starting to expire and needing
redone. Plus development imperils necessary right of way acquisition in
the Central Valley. If the bonds fail by all accounts the Authority
will fold its tent and it could easily be 50 years before another
effort for a high speed train may be undertaken. 

The interesting thing to me is for years I have been taking outreach
materials on the bullet train concept to share with the public
when Southern California Transit Advocates has booths at transportation
related events. And the response is almost uniformly positive. Often
people ask "Why isn’t it already under way?" One problem has been the
highest level of support has not been the folks at the end points but
among those in the middle. Residents of the Central Valley have to
drive long distances to get much of anywhere–even to fly cross
country. And what little air service they have is disproportionately
overpriced. While the focus has been how the train would connect L.A.
to the Bay Area many of the folks who would flock to ride it would be
traveling from Bakersfield to Fresno or Tulare to Modesto. But of
course these are not the folks with the most clout in state politics;
meanwhile over the years the Bay Area was mostly consumed in squabbles
over routing while Southern California was distracted by SCAG and its
ridiculous (and thankfully now fast vanishing) Maglev proposal. Because
the bonds kept being deferred from being voted on many–in the
financial community and elected officials–questioned whether the state
was serious about this effort. The passage of the bonds would change
everything–Wall Street and electeds would finally realize this is not
a pipedream (or a Buck Rogers fantasy, in the infamous phrasing of
former Governor Gray Davis). 

You may be shocked to learn I have just two chief reason why I think we
should pass the bonds. The first was made all the way back in 1996 by
the Commission in its Final Report: given the unlikelihood of our major
airports being expanded it would make sense to shift intra-state travel
to high speed rail while having air space mostly reserved for long
distance travel. Certainly in the intervening 12 years the tensions
between the major airports (LAX, John Wayne, SFO, Oakland, San Jose,
Lindberg) and their surrounding communities over expansion etc, have
become if anything more heated. In this context high speed rail has a
logical and prudent role in our state’s transportation network.

The other reason was first stated by former state librarian Kevin Starr
in an interview two years ago in CityBeat L.A.: that building a bullet
train would help unite Southern California and Northern California.
Much too much of our state’s culture and politics has been dominated by
the north/south divide. Investing billions so our residents think of
themselves as Californians not simply residents of whatever enclave or
region they inhabit would be money well spent. Sometimes the most
powerful idea is the simplest, most straight forward one.


can do it. It makes sense. And once again, as our state has been so
often in the past, we’ll be pioneers leading the way for the rest of
the county. The bullet train partakes of the very spirit that created
and built this state. We don’t think little. And we have the confidence
to do what others would believe impossible. Vote for Proposition 1A,
and for a renewal of the spirit that has made our state great in the
past and can make it great again. Or as the Romans put it: Fortes
fortuna adiuvat (translation: fortune favors the bold).

Image: Pacifica Radio

  • Though it is expensive ($19 billion in debt and interest payments taken from the general fund), this is an incredibly good idea.

  • Regardless of the outcome of the high-speed rail bond measure in November, your advocacy position is diminished when you disparage a competing technology approach [“…Southern California was distracted by SCAG and its ridiculous (and thankfully now fast vanishing) Maglev proposal.”]. There are ongoing studies of maglev applications in several other states — Nevada (Las Vegas – Anaheim), Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh metro area), Baltimore-Washington, Atlanta – Chattanooga and Chattanooga – Nashville, to name the current group. Not to mention the ongoing Orange Line proposal to connect 14 cities including Palmdale, Santa Clarita, Union Station and Orange County.

    These studies are establishing the technical and environmental baselines to prepare for the future, and most are considering high-speed rail as well as maglev technologies. There’s nothing ridiculous about such work.

  • I’m actively campaigning for Prop 1A because I think this train is an incredible opportunity for changing the landscape of California transportation.
    I have made a post card to promote the train and printed 1000 copies. If anyone is interested in getting some of these to pass around, let me know. I have also posted the files online and with links to overnight prints .com for anyone to print their own run.

    My E-Mail: g a r y r i d e s b i k e s @ g m a i l .c o m


  • Any chance you can get a few down to the Bike Oven?

    3706 N. Figueroa St, Los Angeles, CA 90065

    We’ll pass ’em around to our clientele.

  • David Murphy

    Well, said, Dana. I was in Europe in August, and there, HSR is, of course, everywhere, and oh-so-useful. I walked from my hotel to the train station in London, and a couple hours later I was in downtown Paris, France.

    Later I tool French TGV (HSR) from Paris to the South of France, and it was so much more pleasant than flying — you can get to the train station as little as 10 minutes before departure (not 2-3 hours for the airport!) and you can walk around while traveling, go get a martini in the food car, put up your feet, or what have you.

    HSR can unite Northern & Southern California, just as it has united England with Continental Europe.

  • As a professional engineer, maglev is a technology that should be disparaged as often as possible. The Shanghai maglev has failed to meet ridership projections and is literally sinking. A rare protest developed in China over an extension of the maglev, with hundreds attending. (Considering how quickly the Communist government silences dissent, to get a few hundred people to gather and express an opinion is nothing short of amazing.) The federal government gave millions of taxpayer money for a maglev at Old Dominion University in Virginia, which has produced absolutely nothing useful.

    No one addresses the concerns about maglev’s noise, which peer reviewed studies have shown to be more annoying than regular steel wheel trains. The effect of someone living next to a 200 mph maglev is similar to having jet planes take off next to them. Large soundwalls will have to be built to shield neighborhoods from the noise, which will create a tunnel effect adjacent to the trains.

    As for maglev locally, the Orange Line maglev is a complete failure. The Orange County Transportation Authority revoked the authority to use the Pacific Electric right of way through their county, and is instead planning to use the ROW for a bike lane instead. SCAG, normally a supporter of maglev, pulled the Orange Line from its funded Regional Transportation Plan, and placed it in its strategic plan, due to lack of funding. It is very likely that the few hundred million given to the “West Santa Ana Branch Corridor” in Measure R will go away once environmental review begins. Environmental review and the public consultation process have not even begun. There are enough downsides to maglev, exceeding those of other rail and highway projects, that a strong, grassroots opposition will form against the maglev in the United States if they run it at speeds anywhere near 100 mph. And, at speeds less than 100 mph, steel wheel technology has a longer track record and is less reliant on whiz bang technology.

  • ubrayj02, I’ll try and get some of those postcards down to the Oven. If not my self, someone from my marry crew of helpers who extend my distribution reach. I’ll try and get some into the Kitchen and Bikerowave as well. I’ve also been collaborating with the crew from CALPIRG promoting the train and got a fat stack of cards into their hands.

  • Calwatch’s comments against maglev technology are selective and consistently off-target.

    The Shanghai maglev, as a commercial demonstration, may have failed to meet initial ridership projections, but is has consistently covered operations and maintenance costs through the fare box, so it pays for itself, in transit terms. And is not sinking. One or two support columns — of the thousands in place — were adjusted in the field during the initial construction phase in 2003/2004. Nothing unusual.

    And the citizen protest in China over an extension of the maglev was organized by affluent NIMBY groups, just as we do experience in the USA.

    The American Maglev Technology system at Old Dominion University in Virginia, which was a complete failure, has indeed produced absolutely nothing useful. It is one of many prototype system designs that is in the embryonic stage and may or may not ever become a viable commercial product.

    No one addresses the concerns about maglev’s noise because there should be none. The one European study that showed maglev noise to be more annoying than regular steel wheel trains was selectively engineered to obtain the desired outcome. Anyone who’s experienced the Transrapid maglev system in Germany or China knows that reduced noise is one of maglev’s strongest environmental features.

    If, as calwatch mistakenly claims, “the effect of someone living next to a 200 mph maglev is similar to having jet planes take off next to them,” imagine the effect of a 200-mph steel-wheel train running by instead, with its inherently higher noise (and vibration). Sound walls could never shield neighborhoods from the noise.

    For anyone who has actually looked into high-speed maglev, there are no significant downsides, especially compared to other rail projects, unless you count full grade/route separation (incompatibility with commuter/freight rail) as a downside.

    Finally, predicting that “a strong, grassroots opposition will form against the maglev in the United States if they run it at speeds anywhere near 100 mph” is laughably naive. In fact, the opposite is true. High-speed maglev has been evaluated for corridors in the USA for the past 20 years and several states are actively pursuing it today, in a grassroots support operation.

  • As someone who is extremely skeptical of maglev, I should point out that “maglev has been evaluated for corridors in the USA for the past 20 years and several states are actively pursuing it today” does not equate to a functioning test, in this country, to prove Mr. Blow’s contentions and disprove calwatch’s.

    How long has maglev been studied to death? In my recollection, longer than the high speed train proposal. Yet there is still no active test train? That feeds my skepticism.

    Citing Shanghai as the shining example and quoting farebox recovery also should be taken with a grain of salt. Communist governments have been around longer than I have been alive, and one thing I have seen in common with all of them is that the “facts” are always skewed to make the government look right. Given that we are not likely to get an independent audit of the Shanghai system’s financial books, I am extremely hesitant to take any proclamations by them at face value, and I suggest that Mr. Blow needs to find a more credible source.

  • I’m excited by the potential for Mag-Lev, however I feel HSR is the right way to go for this California project. Mag-Lev is more expensive track to lay down, and it’s incompatibility with other lines can be limiting. Some French TGV trains start out going slowly on traditional rail lines in cities and then switch over to dedicated track in the country side where it then accelerates to full speed. Currently a Mag-Lev train holds the world speed record, but it only beat the French HSR time by about 10 km per hour.

  • Laurence, are you saying the NIMBYs will be defeated in the United States when they haven’t been defeated in China, a much more totalitarian state? I’m glad you appear to be trolling blogs to defend maglev. But it is not politically workable in the United States. Unlike steel wheel HSR, which uses existing track, will be running at moderate speeds in residential areas, and is compatible with existing distribution systems, maglev has limited application, has been rejected by a few Southern California agencies, and has never faced a full Environmental Review (as stated before, the Las Vegas-Anaheim EIR is on hold, and the Orangeline and SCAG maglevs are on hold).

    Concerns from Beijing and Shanghai were not just NIMBY concerns of noise and electromagnetic radiation, but also calls that the money could be better spent on better buses and local trains, as well as more highways. (And one man’s NIMBY is another man’s community organizing.) When people find out about maglev in their community, it will be very difficult to persuade them that it will bring a net positive, even if it might. Perception is reality, and maglev has a poor perception in the public.

  • Kymberleigh, I agree that studies alone do not equate to a functioning [maglev] test, especially in this country. If studies were all that were needed, there’d already be a maglev running somewhere in the U.S.

    Turns our there’s a full-scale test facility in Germany operatng since 1984, but typically nobody in the USA cares about that and most people do remain skeptical.

    Unfortunately, Shanghai is the only example of a commercial system out there, so I’m left to cite it for whatever aspect relates, even farebox recovery. I wish there were more examples.


    Calwatch, I am only suggesting that NIMBYs will be dealt with in the United States, when the time comes, because they’ve already protested maglev in cities such as Baltimore and metro Washington, D.C. and their effects have led to constructive dialogies with citizens groups and route adjustments as well.

    There is much evidence to support your contention that maglev is not politically workable in the United States. No argument there.

    However, I can’t predict the future to say it will be very difficult to persuade people to accept maglev in their communities. Perception is reality, certainly, but maglev has not had a poor public perception everywhere. It’s just been a very hard sell in California.

  • For those speaking out against mag-lev. . . don’t worry about it. California HSR is NOT a maglev project. (not all high speed trains are maglev)

  • Malcolm G.

    It is surprising and dissappointing to see all of the negativity towards Maglev. Although it involves a huge investment, and faces numerous practical challenges, it is a revolutionary technology which offers a genuine solution to fossil fuel dependency. Because there is no surface friction, Maglev should be much more efficient, and will ultimately require less maintenance and replacement of moving parts than steel wheel trains.

    This is an opportunity to leapfrog existing technology and move ahead of the current standards. In rebuilding its infrastructure after being largely destroyed by American bombers in World War II, Japan, with America’s help, chose the most cutting edge technologies and invested the resources to develop these technologies into practical solutions. Among the projects undertaken was the development of the Shinkansen “bullet train” system. This took vast amounts of capital, time and effort but the investment eventually paid off. Today Japan has the world’s best rail system.

    Paradoxically, with respect to passenger rail transportation, the United States face a situation similar to what Japan faced with respect to its entire infrastructure in the 50s and 60s. Because the auto and oil interests have been able to quash the development of rail systems over the last century in this country, we are starting with relatively less exisiting infrastructure or “sunk costs”. This should be seen as an opportunity rather than hinderance; Instead of settling for what is now the norm for highspeed rail, we can set the standard for tomorrow by investing in what will ultimately prove to be better technology. Unfortunately, it seems our political system lacks true leadership and is too fraught with naysayers and special interests to take this giant leap forward.

    Maglev would offer California a chance to show true technological and environmental leadership. The costs are high, and there are risks but nothing revolutionary was ever achieved without incurring large costs and taking on significant risks.

  • This Interim Report of Ridership Forecast & Operating & Maintenance Costs
    prepared for the Southern California Association of Governments I think is the death knell for SCAGLEV:


    Thanks to the city of Los Angeles which kept the promises it made when it joined the maglev joint powers authority, the consultant did an honest comparison of maglev to conventional steel wheel on steel rail high speed train technology. And basically maglev provides little or no benefits versus high speed rail for a huge difference in capital cost.

    Note SCAG hasn’t had a maglev task force meeting for SIX months: http://www.scag.ca.gov/maglev/pdf/mgtf102208fullagn.pdf

    SCAG has new leadership and I suspect they know a sow’s ear masquerading as a silk purse when it sees one.

    Instead of railing at us folks in Southern california, maglev boosters should be networking with the folks in Vegas who are at work on a project that is supposed to link that city with Anahaim (aka California-Nevada Super Speed Train Commission). They have obtained some federal funds for planning and certainly seem more hospitable than we folks. Abandon us to our maglev-less fate. ;-)


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