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How Long Will It Take To Bring High Speed Rail to California?


California will receive $2.25 billion, the largest amount for any state, in federal economic stimulus funds to develop a high-speed rail line. The trip time of the route between Anaheim and San Francisco, which is predicted to cost about $42 billion, is 2 hours, 40 minutes. Trains are expected to travel 220 MPH. We discuss what it will take to bring a high-speed rail to California.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. California has moved one step closer to the goal of building a high-speed rail line with a federal grant of two and a quarter billion dollars. The money, awarded earlier this year, was the largest stimulus grant given any state for transportation funding. Supporters, including voters who approved a $10 billion bond for the project in 2008, say high-speed rail is an essential part of California's transportation future. But critics suggest the total $42 billion price tag, which is low by some estimates, is way beyond the horizon of our financially strapped state. For the rest of this hour we'll be talking about high-speed rail in California, how far along we are with the plans and whether we'll be able to pay for it. Joining me are my guests. Jeffrey Barker is deputy executive director for Communications, Policy and Public Outreach for the California High-Speed Rail Authority. And Jeffrey, welcome to These Days.

JEFFREY BARKER (Deputy Executive Director for Communications, Policy and Public Outreach, California High-Speed Rail Authority): Hi there. How are you?

CAVANAUGH: I’m very well. Thank you for joining us. Pat Merrill is Amtrak assistant vice president for Policy & Development West. Pat, good morning.

PAT MERRILL (Assistant Vice President, Policy & Development West, Amtrak): Good morning. How are you?

CAVANAUGH: Thank you. I’m well, thank you. And Yonah Freemark is a journalist who covers transportation. He now writes for Next American City, The Infrastructurist, and The Transport Politic. He joins us by phone from France. Yonah, good morning.

YONAH FREEMARK (Transportation Journalist): Hi. Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: You’re welcome. We’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. Do you think now is the time for California to press on with plans for a statewide high-speed rail project? Tell us why you think it’s a good idea or a bad one. Give us your questions and comments. The number is 1-888-895-5727. Let me start with you, if I may, Jeff. Give us some of the basics on the high-speed rail proposal. Where, for instance, would it travel?

BARKER: Yeah, we have a statewide system planned, the first phase of which would start in the Anaheim/Los Angeles area, head north, cut over to the Central Valley to Bakersfield, up through Fresno and Merced, and then cut over across to the Bay Area, over to San Jose and San Francisco. It’s about 520 miles of track. And we propose to have that done, if everything shakes out properly, by 2020. You’d be able to ride that train from San Francisco to LA in the year 2020.

CAVANAUGH: Now we’re talking high-speed so, Jeff, how fast would it go?

BARKER: We’d get up to a top operating speed of 220 miles an hour, which is about as fast as any trains in the world are going right now. And we’d do that primarily through the Central Valley, of course, where it’s straight and flat, and we’d operate, you know, slower through urban areas of course.

CAVANAUGH: And what would that make the travel time between LA and San Francisco?

BARKER: Oh, actually by law, when the voters put Prop 1-A into place, and by law we have to be able to get from San Francisco to LA in under two hours and 40 minutes.

CAVANAUGH: Ah, okay. So you gave us the timeline for construction between Anaheim and San Francisco. When would San Diego be included in that route?

BARKER: We’re doing the same preliminary engineering and environmental review work in the San Diego route as we are the whole system, and we’re hoping to have that completed by 2013 and construction could happen after that.

CAVANAUGH: Now I would like to pose this to you, Jeff, and Yonah, first to you, Jeff. How would California actually benefit by having this high-speed rail line?

BARKER: You know, well, California’s already, you know, taxed with the number of people, the number of cars on the road and planes in the air. And over the next two decades, we’re projected to grow by a full third of population, another 12 million people here. We’ll be 50 million people in California. We simply cannot build the roads and the airport runways fast enough to accommodate all that growth, all the people who are here now. So by adding this alternative transportation mode, you’ve given people more options, given them the option to get out of the air, given them the option to get off the road, and to help our entire transportation network. And, as you know, California’s the 8th largest economy in the world and one of the reasons that is is because we are so efficient at moving people throughout the state and moving goods from around the world into our state and from California out to the world, and that really relies on a solid transportation network.

CAVANAUGH: And, Yonah, I know that you study transport all over the world. How do you think California would benefit from having this high-speed rail line?

FREEMARK: Well, I think Jeff’s exactly right. Basically what the high-speed rail system is going to allow happen is give California citizens the ability to get around in a new and different way. Basically, people who are currently stuck on the roadways and at the airports are going to be able to go downtown and get on the train and get between their cities faster than they ever have been able to before. That kind of mobility is unforeseen in the United States. It has never happened before. And I think that kind of alternative will be pretty exciting for people who live in California.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Yonah, I understand that, as I say, you’re coming to us today from France and you’re traveling in France. How are you using the rail system in France?

FREEMARK: Well, France has, as we know, a pretty well developed high-speed rail system, and basically it makes it possible to get around most of the country in travel times that are greatly reduced compared to equivalent distances in the United States. You know, it’s possible to get from Paris down to the south coast of France, several hundred miles away, in just three hours. And that kind of connectivity makes it possible to get around the country very easily.

CAVANAUGH: And what is the pricing like, Yonah. How much does it cost?

FREEMARK: Well, France has pioneered a strategy that makes high-speed rail the same price as regular train tickets. So, you know, as a young person, I can get around France at relatively cheap prices. I can get from Paris to Marseilles on the south coast for as little as, you know, 25 Euros, which is incredibly cheap.

CAVANAUGH: And how does that translate to dollars, do you know?

FREEMARK: Well, 25 Euros is about 30 to 35 Euros (sic) depending on the exchange rate.


FREEMARK: Oh, dollars, excuse me.

CAVANAUGH: Wow, that is – that is inexpensive. I wonder, Jeff, what we’re talking about in terms of pricing for our high-speed rail line here in California?

BARKER: Yeah, we’re not there yet, of course. We don’t even have a single shovel in the ground for our project yet…


BARKER: …so it’d be a little premature to talk that. But we’ve taken a look at a couple of scenarios comparing what a high-speed train ticket would cost compared to airfare over the same distance. We’ve looked at costing about 50% of what an airplane ticket would cost or 83% of what an airplane ticket would cost. In each one of those cases, we see the system as being able to make revenue. Now unique to California is that our system will not use any government operating subsidies so it will have to support itself on the ticket fares alone. And so that’ll be part of the decision that goes into what we’ll charge for a trip.

CAVANAUGH: And that sounds like it’s going to make it considerably more expensive than what we just heard about in France.

BARKER: Well, again, it’s hard to say. It depends on what a gallon of gas costs when we open the system, it depends on what airfare is – costs at the same time. Of course, it would have to be competitive, it would have to – the market would have to say how much a ticket would be. But we know it will be competitive and we know around the world high-speed train tickets are as affordable or more affordable than airplane tickets over the same distance.

CAVANAUGH: Let me bring Pat Merrill into the conversation. Pat Merrill is Amtrak assistant vice president for Policy & Development in the west. And Amtrak, I know, Pat, recently established a high-speed rail division. So I’m wondering what is Amtrak’s goal in terms of involvement in high-speed rail here in California?

MERRILL: Well, Amtrak wants to position itself to be competitive in all of the conversations that are happening in the U.S. regarding high-speed rail. Amtrak has a lot of experience in the northeast corridor operating the Acela Service, which is high-speed service, has been in operation for more than 9 years, going on 10 years. And Amtrak has a lot of expertise in operations, engineering, planning, and so they want to engage wherever there’s a high-speed rail opportunity. Amtrak wants to compete and they want to engage in that dialogue.

CAVANAUGH: Now you talked about Amtrak’s high-speed rail system. Now as far as high-speed goes, Amtrak’s high-speed trains don’t go very fast, do they?

MERRILL: Well, they do 150 miles an hour, top speed.


MERRILL: The federal government designates anything 90 and above as a high-speed train. So Amtrak has, for a very long time, operated more than 125 miles an hour in the northeast corridor and then in 2000, they were able to upgrade that to 150 miles per hour. But there’s also a study underway that would take that above 200 miles an hour.

CAVANAUGH: I see. I see. Now, in order for Amtrak to actually increase the speed capacity for its trains on a number of different lines, wouldn’t they have to put in new tracks and new infrastructure?

MERRILL: Well, there is certainly an infrastructure component to that. As has been pointed out in many conversations, when you get to a certain speed, it’s very difficult to operate at the reliability and safety level that you want to have unless you have dedicated high-speed tracks. So that is one of the impediments in the northeast corridor right now for Amtrak, that they are moving their Acela trains through a maze, if you will, of freight, commuter, and regional trains operating on the same infrastructure. So it is important to continue to make investments so that you can operate at higher speeds.

CAVANAUGH: And, Jeff, I just want to make it clear that the plans for California’s High-Speed Rail Authority is a completely brand new infrastructure for these trains, is that correct?

BARKER: That’s right. What we’re looking at is the technology that’s used around the world, you know, in France with the TGV, in Japan with their Shinkansen. It’s train technology that today does not exist in the United States so there’s a lot of new infrastructure that will have to be put in place, new trains that’ll have to be tested here, and a lot of federal regulations that we’ll have to set up for, you know, speeds that have never been reached here in the United States.

CAVANAUGH: I’m – We’re speaking about high-speed rail, the dream of high-speed rail in California and how it is developing and slowly coming true here. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And there are a number of people who want to join this conversation. Let’s start to take some calls. Don is calling from Oceanside. Good morning, Don. Welcome to These Days.

DON (Caller, Oceanside): Good morning. Thank you. I would like to know, is this a project that is projected to pay for itself and, if so, over what period of time?

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that, Don. And I guess that goes to Jeff.

BARKER: Yeah, that’s great, Don. I’m very jealous, Oceanside. I grew up in San Diego and I would love to be on the northern coast of San Diego right now. Yeah, it is. The infrastructure is the portion that the state will put up some money to build the infrastructure. So that earlier in the program we heard about a $43 billion cost, we’re projecting to pay for that with the $9 billion of state bonds that have already been approved by the voters in 2008, additional federal investment, we’ll have some local government money in there, as well as private investment will pay for that portion. I think that’s the role of government is to start up and spur these types of developments. But when the system becomes operational, government will not subsidize it so the ticket costs will pay for the system operations, the maintenance, and everything moving forward.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Outana is calling from Encinitas. Good morning, Outana. Welcome to These Days.

OUTANA (Caller, Encinitas): Thank you. Good morning. My question – I’m in the 100% supportive of the high-speed rail. My concern was that it won’t – your first guest said that it would be – a network would start in Anaheim. I’m wondering why not San Diego?

CAVANAUGH: Okay, Jeff, why not San Diego?

BARKER: It’s a good question. We did a study, we did an environmental impact report back in 2005 to sketch out the system for the entire state and at that point we decided where the system would go, which cities it would hit. It was decided that we would take the line from Los Angeles through the Inland Empire and down to San Diego and when Proposition 1-A was put on the ballot, it outlined – and that was in 2008, it outlined what the first phase would be, the first phase being from Los Angeles, essentially, to San Francisco and that’s what the voters voted on so now that’s what we’re bound by, to pursue that section first. And, of course, the most important thing is that the system will begin making money so that it’s not a drain on state dollars, and that city pairing, Los Angeles to San Francisco, is where we see the highest traffic being and the most revenue generating potential.

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you, Yonah, if I may, what is the history of the high-speed rail in France? How did they get that system going? When did it start?

FREEMARK: Well, the first high-speed rail line in France opened in 1981 and it was the third high-speed rail system to open in the world after Japan and Italy had both opened some lines. But it’s important to note that just like in California, the French high-speed rail system did not start out with a nationwide system or even a, you know, a statewide system. It started out with just one line and it built from there. And I think that lesson can be taken from France and from other countries to California. You know, you can start out with a line from Anaheim through Los Angeles to San Francisco and then build successful additions to that line and create a more unified network. But starting out with one line that doesn’t necessarily get to San Diego, I think, is an acceptable start.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder, Pat, how do you see Amtrak interacting with this high-speed rail line from – that we’re building here for California itself? Is there going to be some give and take between the already established Amtrak lines here in California?

MERRILL: Absolutely, and probably most importantly for the high-speed rail system to deliver the kind of ridership that it projects and needs to achieve, all of the feeder lines, commuter, regional rail, all of those feeder lines including some light rail in some locations have to be a reliable source of ridership feeding into the backbone of the high-speed rail system.

CAVANAUGH: You have, Jeff, on your website, the California High-Speed Rail Authority, you have some rather impressive computer generated videos of what you expect not only the train to look like but, as Pat was mentioning, sort of these big terminals, these feeder locations. Tell us a little bit about that.

BARKER: Yeah, thanks for putting out those videos. I think they’re really helpful to people here who have never been overseas and they’ve never ridden a high-speed train. It really helps them to visualize what we’re talking about. We call those, you know, intermodal centers and that’s kind of an essential element of what we’re doing. We want to tie into every single other mode of transportation in the state so you have this seamless network of transportation options that are working together. That way somebody can get very easily from their home to a local light rail, take it directly over to the high-speed rail station, get on the high-speed rail train and, next thing you know, you’re halfway across the state, and you do that effortlessly. I think that the earlier gentleman mentioned going downtown to downtown and that’s very essential to high-speed rail. I was, you know, down in Anaheim a couple of weeks ago and had to at, you know, six in the morning get the cab to the airport and then wait, you know, to go through the security, wait for the train – plane, got back up here to Sacramento, had to get the shuttle from, you know, 25 minutes out where the airport is from downtown. The whole thing took me four hours. To be able to use your existing public transportation networks, go downtown to downtown, you’re really cutting down on hassle and cutting down on travel time.

CAVANAUGH: We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. We’re talking about high-speed rail in California. And let’s hear from William. He’s calling us from Carlsbad. Good morning, William. Welcome to These Days.

WILLIAM (Caller, Carlsbad): Good morning, and thank you.


WILLIAM: I have a question concerning the high-speed rail and how it will affect commuters and in between cities and because of the short commute times, are there studies done that would show how it would affect, say, a person that chooses to live in Salinas and commute to San Francisco or the other way around?

CAVANAUGH: Jeff, that sounds like a question for you.

BARKER: Yeah, I don’t know if there are studies per se but that is, you know, a phenomenon that could happen with the high-speed train being in operation. You already have those kinds of examples. For example, Merced has become sort of a bedroom community for the Bay Area. People live in the Central Valley in Merced and commute across the state to the Bay Area for work. A high-speed train going that same path would make that a little easier but – and I think maybe, you know, Yonah could speak to this as well. Short commute trips is not where high-speed trains do their best and where they make their most revenue. You’re really looking at replicating airline traffic so that city-to-city, point-to-point, you know, 300, 400, 500 miles away, LA to San Francisco being a very good example, that’s really where high-speed trains do their best business and where they make most sense for travelers.

CAVANAUGH: Yonah, how does France handle that? You have the high-speed rail for the long trips but regular rail for a short hop?

FREEMARK: Right, well, there has been some, you know, some local people who choose to commute every day on high-speed rail but to tell you the truth, that’s a bit of a rarity in the same way that you wouldn’t expect many people to be taking an airplane every day. You know, it’s just not something that people do because of price and because of time. The main advantage of high-speed rail is that it can have long track segments where trains can accelerate to really high speeds. If you’re talking about people commuting from suburban communities into the inner city, you won’t be able to get up to those really high speeds and you lose some of the advantages of high-speed rail. So most of the advantage comes from these really high speeds you get from traveling very long distances. In terms of people traveling, you know, from suburban locations to the inner city, we need an improvement to our commuter rail systems in most places in the United States and that’s something that California needs to work on, has been working on and, you know, can really benefit people in communities in a way that high-speed rail can’t.

CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break and when we return, we’ll continue our conversation about high-speed rail in California and talk especially about some of the challenges facing these plans. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS, and we’re talking about high-speed rail in California. My guests are Jeffrey Barker, he is with the California High-Speed Rail Authority. Pat Merrill is Amtrak assistant vice president, and Yonah Freemark is a journalist who covers transportation. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And I said that we would be talking about some of the challenges facing the California high-speed rail project and, Jeff, let’s talk about the $42 billion price tag because some people have said how are we going to be paying for this project? And so far, we got – as I started out, said we got a two and a quarter billion dollar grant. Of course, we have the $10 billion bond that the voters approved in 2008. But where is that other money coming from?

BARKER: Yeah, it’s a great question. I think the positive thing is that we already have those two funding streams that you mentioned. We already have 26% of our project’s cost and we’re still probably two years from breaking ground on it. And when you think of a major infrastructure investment, you think of maybe, I mean, an individual buying a home. Most people don’t walk into the home the first day living there already having paid it all off or lined up all the cash to do so. You put a down payment and you have a credible plan for moving forward and that’s what we have. We have a plan to use four major funding streams that – the state money that has already been approved, federal funding, which we will, you know, have some already and will continue to lobby for. Some money from local governments, pitching in on things like stations and, you know, donating land for right of way. And then, of course, the private sector, we believe, will participate in helping build this system toward the end of our construction phase. So we’ve got a plan for doing so and in the end what we’ll have is a state that has put up only one dollar for every four dollars of project cost. Essentially would put up $9 billion from that bond and we will lure another $34 billion into the state, and that means jobs, that means a lot of economic activity and I can’t name another infrastructure project that can say the same thing.

CAVANAUGH: Jeff, how much money has been pledged by private investors? Has anything so far?

BARKER: Well, we haven’t actually asked them to make any commitments yet. What we’ve done is we’ve kind – we’ve reached out to the private sector to seek their level of interest and, I’ll tell you, they’re extremely interested in this project. You know, we’re likely to be the first true high-speed train in the United States which will, of course, spur more development and more business throughout the country. Other countries that are doing this, you know, whether it’s Korea or Japan or France, all these other countries are very interested in helping California build its system, companies like GE. Of course, we saw the recent news with Amtrak. There’s a lot of interest from private companies, other countries, to participate and help build the system here in California.

CAVANAUGH: And, Jeff, when this high-speed rail is finished, what company is actually going to be responsible for running it? Is that a company based in the United States?

BARKER: That’s a good question. We have not – Like I say, we’re still a couple of years from breaking ground so the pressure’s not on to know the answer to that question just yet. But what we want to do is we want to get the best deal for taxpayers so ultimately we will bring in a private operator to work in concert with the state, which would, you know, maintain ownership of the system and policy oversight of it. We’d bring on a private operator and we want to create a competition there so that we get the best deal for taxpayers. So it’s hard to say, you know, just yet who that might be.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder, Pat, what’s Amtrak’s take on the idea that it’s possible that a company based outside the United States might come in and run California’s High-Speed Rail Authority?

MERRILL: Well, certainly that’s a possibility. We think that there’s a lot of merit to looking inside the United States for suppliers, for operators, for anything that we can do to help bolster the number of jobs that are staying in the United States.

CAVANAUGH: And, Yonah, when it comes to the actual technology that California is going to be using to – for its high-speed rail, as I say, you are pretty much an expert on transportation around the world, what technology really works well? Do all the major high-speed rail lines use the same kind of high-speed technology?

FREEMARK: Well, no. Actually, until recently, most countries have developed their own trains and sold the – you know, they’ve had companies that have sold their trains, their own domestic operators, and it’s pretty much worked domestically. But recently there’s been a lot of competition now that high-speed rail is expanding around the world, and you see several different major companies like Bombardier out of Canada, Alstom out of France and Siemens out of Germany as well as a number of Japanese companies that really want to get involved in selling high-speed rail trains. Now whether or not one of those is better than the others is up to question but, you know, that’s something that the California High-Speed Rail Authority is going to have to decide in a later, you know, in a later decision.

CAVANAUGH: Right, exactly. As I said, we’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Gabriel is calling us – is joining us from San Diego. Good morning, Gabriel. Welcome to These Days.

GABRIEL (Caller, San Diego): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I have a question. I mean, I’m obviously a consumer and price-wise is obviously important. How is this going to compare to, say, a Southwest Airline with some of the low cost airfares that are out there? And, I mean, the time frame, obviously, you know, Southwest is there now. Why would we do this as opposed to just, you know, maybe expanding some of the airfare travel or some of that other stuff that’s probably competitively priced?

CAVANAUGH: Well, you know, Pat, I’m going to direct that question to you because you’re talking about Amtrak across the United States trying to increase its high-speed capacity. So why do that? Why not just leave it to the airlines?

MERRILL: Well, it’s been pointed out previously, there is a competitive advantage travelwise when you’re talking about getting from downtown to downtown over longer distances. For example, in the northeast corridor Amtrak has done an outstanding job of taking the airline industry head-on and taking marketshare away from them, in fact, so that there is a model in the United States that’s very successful. Over 60% of what would have been anticipated for airline travel is actually handled by the northeast corridor.

CAVANAUGH: And, Jeff, what about inside California, can’t the airlines just handle this if we could sort of get the priceline down so that actually commuter air travel is really not that terribly expensive within California.

BARKER: Well, two points. First of all, of course we would end up having a pricing structure a lot like an airline’s where if you bought your ticket day of, it’d be a lot more expensive than if you planned your trip two weeks out. People like to talk about Southwest’s $59 airfare but I travel for business a lot and if I have to book a flight in the very next day, I mean, I’ve paid $164 one way to go from Sacramento to Los Angeles. So those different pricing structures do make a difference there. The other thing is that, you know, airlines also don’t make a lot of money off these short, intrastate trips. I mean, try to get a plane from San Diego to Fresno and see how many of those there are a day and how difficult and how expensive that is. So they actually want to free up some of their airport runway space for longer trips across country because that’s where they make their money and they would be – a lot of airlines would be fine not doing those short hop flights from San Diego to LA…


BARKER: …having, you know, commuter rail take that traffic.

CAVANAUGH: And, Jeff, I was going to point out in one of the videos you have on the website for California high-speed rail, it says that the goal is to have 50% the cost of what it would be to fly from LA to San Francisco. Is that the goal? Is that still your goal?

BARKER: That was one scenario we looked at and we believe that if that were the price point we would still generate revenue but, again, that’s a decision that won’t be made for several years. It’ll be made based on the market at the time, and when we bring on a private operator they will have a say in that because, again, the system does have to generate its own revenue and cannot rely on state or federal government operating subsidies so it will have to make money.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Let’s take another call. Ben’s calling us from Carlsbad. Good morning, Ben. Welcome to These Days.

BEN (Caller, Carlsbad): Good morning. Thanks for taking my call. My original comment when I first called in at the start of the show was I definitely believe that California has been the leader of technology in every other field that we’ve taken on and I think that the high-speed rail should definitely demonstrate to the rest of the United States that this is a very feasible and – way of moving into the future means of transportation and that we should continue to try and set that bar. A few other comments that I’ll make and then I can take them off the air but regarding the rest of the show, I – Regarding handling it by regional air, anybody that’s flown in the little prop planes between here and LA and LA and other smaller cities will know that it’s not a very comfortable way of travel. High-speed rail will definitely offer the luxuries and the price points, I think, that will definitely help to get people out of the air and out of their cars. But that being said, I think that the pricing structure definitely needs to be focused on, because we are a car culture, California is very large. There’s still a lot of areas that are not serviced by anything but road so I think that we need to focus on not only the high-speed rail but we need to focus on what the gentleman from Amtrak said, regional theaters and making the pricing competitive. I know he’s talked about the Acela in the northeast. When I traveled from New Jersey to New York, I looked at the Acela pricing points and I thought I really wanted to take advantage of taking high-speed from New Jersey to New York, however, the pricing was three times that of what a similar luxury commuter bus was and I ended up purchasing tickets on the luxury commuter bus with free high speed internet during the travel. It actually was a less of a time to take that. So I think that definitely needs to play into the overall logistics of getting this on the ground. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Ben, thank you so much. Thank you for those comments. I want to pick up on one thing that Ben said, and I want to direct it to you, Yonah. This – He mentioned California being very, very much a car culture. Is there a mental shift that’s going to have to take place, do you think, Yonah, for us to really buy into high-speed rail?

FREEMARK: You know, I don’t think it’s a mental shift. I think as the person who called in said, this is really about the price points.


FREEMARK: I think one of the failures with the Acela service in the northeast is that it is too expensive for most people who use it – or, who would like to use it, rather. California did a study back in 2009 of comparing two different price points for the proposed system, one at 50% of airfare, as you said, and one at 83% of airfare. Now if you look at their ridership estimates, you know, the California High-Speed Rail Authority predicted by 2035 with 50% of airfare, almost 20 million more people riding the train every year, and those 20 million more people are coming from their cars. And so if we really want to create a system that’s going to attract people away from their cars, we have to make it cheaper. And I really think that’s an important point.

CAVANAUGH: Pat, is Amtrak doing anything to try to bring these prices down for their higher speed trains?

MERRILL: Sure, they always look at that. You know, there is a lot of pressure to reduce the federal subsidy as has been mentioned. There’s a lot of pressure to, in this particular economic environment, the price reductions have happened very recently for Acela and for regional service. So the market forces always play into the fair policies.

CAVANAUGH: And, Jeff, what is California taking in from this? I mean, if, indeed, low prices mean high ridership, wouldn’t it be to our advantage to keep to that very sort of low price model?

BARKER: Well, again, you know, we’re bound by this – the law that says we will not use operating subsidies from the government, so that’s kind of one of our guiding rules there. And what we see if we raise the ticket price, what we see is that while ridership comes down, so don’t operations and maintenance costs. So it’ll be a decision that’s made. You know, in the future we’ll have, obviously, public input since we’re a public entity and obviously the legislature here in the state that’s very involved in our project will have a say in that as well and it will ultimately be a policy decision as to where we want the ticket price to be.

CAVANAUGH: You know, I’d like to wrap up our conversation, if I may, first of all with you, Yonah, talking about actually what it’s like on these trains. We had a caller talk about, you know, riding in relative luxury on a high speed train in Europe. Is it, indeed, a luxurious experience?

FREEMARK: You know, it’s not like you’re being served sushi or, you know, caviar or something on the train. That’s not the experience you’re talking about here. I mean, for me, the advantage of high-speed rail is really that it’s so simple. You know, you go to the train station in the middle of your city, you get on the train that’s on time and clean and nice, and you take your train very quickly to the, you know, city that you want to get to much more quickly than you could by car and probably more quickly than you could by plane because you’re not sitting around in an airport waiting for the plane to get takeoffs. Those advantages are incredible when you actually have the chance to take advantage of it, and I can see many, many Californians feeling very happy about being able to take a high-speed train.

CAVANAUGH: And, Jeff, what about the amenities that you’re expecting to have on our high-speed rail system?

BARKER: Yeah, it’s a good question and you look at other high-speed trains throughout the world and you have, you know, high-speed internet on those trains, you have, you know, the ability to watch movies. There’s, of course, I think that as Yonah mentioned, just the idea that a train is, you know, clean and operates well and it operates on time, you know, that is luxury.

CAVANAUGH: Indeed. And just to close us out, you keep saying that we’re two years away from seeing any shovels in the ground, what’s going to be going on in the next two years, if you could within – if you could answer that within 30 seconds.

BARKER: Well, right now we’re doing the environmental review and as you know, state and federal environmental reviews are very lengthy and very thorough. So we’re just making sure we understand the impact of this system on the state and how to mitigate that to make sure that we’re building it, you know, in a way that respects all the communities that we’re going to be running through.

CAVANAUGH: Well, gentlemen, I want to thank you all so much for speaking with us today. I’ve been speaking with Jeff Barker with the California High-Speed Rail Authority, thanks Jeff.

BARKER: Thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: Pat Merrill joined us from Amtrak. Thank you, Pat, very much for speaking with us.

MERRILL: Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And Yonah Freemark in France, enjoy your trip.

FREEMARK: Thanks so much.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. And if you didn’t get a chance to speak to us on the phone, please do post your comment online, You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS. Stay with us for hour two coming up in just a few minutes here on KPBS.

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