My friend David Dayen wrote this week about the launch of California’s high-speed rail line — it’s starting with a short section of the Central Valley — and the inspiring Bizarro Robert Moses story of its triumph over lawsuits and de-funding attempts. If any civic project has a mandate, it’s this one, as last year’s Republican gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari promised to cancel “the crazy train” and Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown thumped him by 20 points. And if any project was haunted by stupid complaints — this one, again.
I’m a big defender of trains, and I see my 2011 Slate story about why conservatives feel the opposite is now twinned with an Eric Holthaus story about why trains don’t make economic sense. Fair enough. We’re living through a happy little oil glut right now, and transportation systems that save you on gas money make a little less immediate sense. Your car is looking better; so, as California rail skeptics keep saying, does your plane ticket. If it takes 90 minutes to fly from San Francisco to Los Angeles but 150 minutes to ride the maglev, why take the maglev?
The people who ask this question can’t have ever compared a rail trip to a flight. “An hour” in the air is not actually an hour. It includes 1) time spent traveling to the airport, which for structural reasons is usually outside the city, 2) time spent lurching through TSA, 3) time spent waiting to board, 4) time spent getting luggage when you land, 5) time spent traveling from the airport to your destination. Because of the externalities I just mentioned, your noon flight from SFO to LAX requires you to leave the house in order to be at least 45 minutes early for the flight.
Compare this with the train. Your arrival for an hour-long trip involves 1) time spent getting to the station, which for structural reasons is in the center of the city, 2) a few minutes flashing your ticket for TSA, 3) a few minutes grabbing luggage, and 4) however long it takes to get from the station in your destination city to your destination. Your noon trip to the SF train station requires that you get to Embarcadero with maybe 15 minutes to spare.
I’m yuppie scum, and I live on the so-called “Acela line” that connects New York to Washington at 150 mph, a trip that ends up bogging down and taking maybe 160 minutes. I don’t know anyone who prefers “the shuttle,” or the plane that flies from DC’s National airport to New York’s LaGuardia airport in 60 minutes. This is because the train trip is pleasant, with minimal travel times to and from the stations, no time when you’re supposed to put away your laptop, and (though this can be annoying) total freedom to make and receive calls. There are weather delays only in drastic end-of-world circumstances; there is none of the traffic you get when making the drive. (And good luck finishing work on your laptop while driving, though I have, while in traffic, and should not say any more about it.)
Conclusion: You West Coasters don’t know what you’re missing. You’ll find out, and you’ll love it. Keep filing those appeals to junk lawsuits.