The fight for high-speed trains rages on |
Arab News - 19 August, 2012
Author: Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
I WRITE this article from California, where its legislature has recently approved about $ 6 billion in funding to start the construction of a high-speed rail line, for the first time in its history. The line would connect San Francisco to Los Angeles with trains expected to run as fast as 350 kilometers per hour. This funding is the first installment on an estimated $ 68 billion cost for the system. Californians are showing leadership at a time of difficult economic times, the likes of which California has not seen in decades. They are providing a lesson for us in Saudi Arabia, where the debate goes on over the value of an extensive rail network.
California’s voters had already voted in 2008 for issuing nearly 10 billion dollars in bonds to finance the project, and it was former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger who pushed the project forward. Despite those facts, the debate in the California legislature was quite partisan, with Republican legislators voting against. Republican figures from outside the state also weighed in against the project, as well some key conservative commentators and comments.
Some of the money for the California project will come from federal government grants, as part of the President Obama’s initiative for the establishment of a national high-speed rail system. The fast rail initiative has been a priority issue for Obama since he was a candidate. Once he became president, he tried to push it through, but Republican resistance has reduced the program to a less ambitious plan to upgrade transportation in general, with only limited funds for the fast rail projects.
Having failed to come up with funding to finance the project from federal money, the Obama administration has sought to leverage the limited amounts authorized by Congress with money from state and local sources and in some cases it pushed states to come up with the requisite funding for fast rail projects, or else lose federal funding to other states. Most states have accepted the challenge, such as California and Illinois recently, but others have not, such as Wisconsin, which has become a hotbed for fiscal conservatives led by Paul Ryan, chosen last week by Mitt Romney as his vice presidential candidate. Despite the obvious advantages of having high speed rail systems, the matter in the United States has become an election-year issue, with Republicans promising to scuttle plans for such systems or any substantial upgrades of existing conventional train systems. For train opponents, the passenger car should continue to be the focus of any transportation system, as it has for decades. Few in the United States now remember that most of their cities used to have extensive rail service before they were dismantled. During the (1936 to 1950) period, a number of companies (car makers and oil companies mainly) bought up around one hundred train traction systems in 45 cities including Baltimore, Los Angeles, Newark, New York City, Oakland and San Diego, making way for buses and passenger cars. This story has been widely reported in the press and fictionalized by several filmmakers. The pictures of train cars piled several stories high to be sold as scrap metal were accepted as a sign of progress and at some level everything was justified during that period of cheap oil and little concern about the environment.
However, matters have changed since then. There is now a greater concern about running out of oil, as well as about the pollution and congestion created by cars. In addition, trains are now many times faster than they were, making them practical alternatives for cars or short-haul air travel. Most industrialized countries have either adopted high-speed trains or are in the process of doing so. In Japan, fast trains now run as fast as 300 kmh and in China, high-speed conventional rail lines operate at top speeds of 350 kmh, while one Maglev line in Shanghai exceeds 433 kmh. The US has been the main exception among industrialized counties.
Despite strong calls for rejuvenating rail service, and especially introducing high-speed train service, the issue is far from being settled in the United States. The leadership shown by California may not be replicated elsewhere, especially if Republicans win the November elections. Several factors, economic as well as cultural and political, are operating against such calls to modernize the US public transport systems. First, fiscal conservatives oppose the initial large investment upfront, which is necessary for high-speed train systems. Second, despite high gasoline prices, Americans are deeply attached to using their cars and would not easily abandon them for trains, fast or not. Third, car manufacturers would fight any encroachments on their transportation market shares. All of these factors would make it difficult for drastic change any times soon.
The American debates are echoed in Saudi Arabia, where it is going to be even more difficult to replace passenger cars with train systems, inside cities or between cities, especially if gasoline prices continue to be as low as they have been. However, as I pointed out in previous essays, such transformation has become a necessity as Saudis now consume more oil per capita than any other nation in the world. However, the only way to wean Saudis away from their cars would be through the establishment of modern, state-of-the-art, high-speed trains. Slow trains would not cut it.