Aug 13, 2021

High-Speed Rail Is Once Again Side-Tracked

Was it a mere DECADE AGO we were all excited about it?

By Ed Goldman

Out of the $4 billion requested by the California High-Speed Rail Authority, this is how much money has been designated for it in the state’s $262.6 billion budget for Fiscal Year 2021-22, which began last month: $0.00.

This also translates as nada, nil, zilch, zero, zip, naught, or nothing. And as you know, even if you add all these figures together, or multiply them by themselves or by any other number, the total will still come to diddly-squat.

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I’m not sure why we should expect more from a state whose governor gets the bright idea of bribing Californians to get vaccinated against a pandemic to prevent them from killing their fellow Californians. As Confucius is alleged to have observed, “He who expects nothing is never disappointed.” (This has been my personal mantra for years, but I find it doesn’t work as tidily in some circumstances—such as team sports, customer relations, professional licensing and new romances, to cite but a few.)

I first wrote about California’s high-speed rail project for my daily column in the Sacramento Business Journal. In homage to a wonderful old song, with an unfortunately racist reference, I headlined it, “Pardon Me, Boy, Is That The Nonexistent Choo-Choo?” The column posted on—you may want to sit down for this “reveal”—November 8, 2011. 

In that piece, attempting to explain why the project was having trouble leaving the station, so to speak—a pun-making cottage industry always springs up when the subject is trains—I wrote that “the apparently non-negotiable construction schedule has the first segment of tracks running from Bakersfield to Chowchilla, or, if you prefer, from Chowchilla to Bakersfield. It’s really not that long a drive—about 150 miles, compared to motoring from Sacramento or San Francisco to L.A. (about 450 miles). In short, you could make the Chowchilla/Bakersfield commute in about two-and-a-half hours. 

I guess I don’t understand how hopping on a high-speed train in Bakersfield is going to help you circumvent rush-hour traffic on your way to Chowchilla. There isn’t any.”

Those of us who’ve been on high-speed trains, in Europe or Asia, were initially excited we might be about to have one in our very lanky state.

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We imagined clickety-clacking our way from Sacramento or San Francisco to Los Angeles or San Diego in possibly less time than it takes to: (a) get to the airport; (b) park; (c) go through the TSA’s fondle-and-pat line; (d) buy a delicious Cinnabon; (e) sit back and wait for our flight to get clearance to take off; (f) take the 65-to-95-minute flight; (g) taxi around for a while if the terminals are full; (h) disembark and rush to the luggage carousel; (i) wait for the luggage carousel to start up, making sure that, after our bags seem to be no-shows, we’ve come to the one serving our flight (the signage sometimes can be deceptive or outdated).

A little more than a decade ago, I rode on France’s high-speed TGV from Paris to Nice. Because of the general smoothness of the tracks, only two incidents made me realize how fast we were going (200 miles per hour). 

The first was when another TGV train going in the opposite direction zipped past our windows in an almost comical blur—the kind they use when trying to depict in the movies how rapidly DC comics’ The Flash runs. The experience seemed to last no more than four or five seconds.

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The second incident was when we were traveling alongside a very busy autoroute (what the French call a freeway or toll road) and I assumed the cars were at a complete standstill, stretching for miles. I asked the conductor what would be causing a traffic snarl like that, and he said, in broken English, that the cars I was looking at were traveling from 75 to 80 miles per hour, that our own speed was creating the optical illusion of commuter gridlock.

I hope our speeding past them didn’t cause drivers to also think they were stationary. I’d hate to think of them stepping out of their cars to see what the problem was. 

And speaking of same, wouldn’t it be nice if someone in the California Legislature were to step out of a high-speed rail meeting at the capitol to see what’s causing the tie-up?

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Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).