Is There an Alternative to California’s High-Speed Rail Project?

Korean High-Speed TrainPhoto: LWY

Situated along the scenic Pacific coast, California is one of America’s largest and best-known states. In addition to the tech industry in greater San Francisco and the film industry in metropolitan Los Angeles, California boasts a productive farm sector. California’s planned high-speed rail project promises to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles – but at a price. Many fear that the proposed high-speed system will be built at the expense of farmland that lies in between.

The San Francisco Chronicle interviewed Kings County farmers who are resisting government plans to route the high-speed rail system through their area. Landowners and farmers in the San Joaquin Valley have been fighting the project with lawsuits and protests. Signs along Highway 43 express their opposition to the high-speed rail with slogans such as “Here comes high-speed rail; there goes my farm.”

Complaints from the locals who live along the planned rail route exemplify a common problem with large-scale planning. At first, rural residents were more in favor of the high-speed rail project, but they became disenchanted after meeting officials involved with the project. The officials concerned gained a reputation for being haughty and uncooperative. Critics accused one government appointee of relying on slick words instead of compromising on plans or supplying adequate information. A more conciliatory, grassroots approach might have worked better.

Californian FieldsPhoto: Wonderlane

Current designs for California’s high-speed rail call for it to cut through prime farmland that produces billions each year in crops such as apricots, almonds, cherries and cotton. Track construction will uproot orchard trees and destroy irrigation systems. And workers will have to take big detours around the tracks to get from one side of affected farms to the other.

Proponents of the current rail route argue that the physics of high-speed rail systems and the locations of existing buildings constrain their options. High-speed trains require relatively straight tracks, and over 1,200 buildings stand in the way of an alternative path through downtown Hanford.

The controversy surrounding California’s high-speed rail project contrasts with the accolades Montreal’s new bus program has earned. Montreal’s 10 Minutes Max frequent-bus network has 31 bus routes with buses that are never more than 10 minutes apart. The frequent buses free their passengers from having to think about bus schedules or plan trips in advance.

Montreal residents are enamored with the frequent-bus network. Ridership on the network is up 6% since 2009. In light of this success, Montreal may add additional bus lines to the network in the near future.

Montreal SkylinePhoto: Benson Kua

Considering the fact that it has worked so well for Montreal, could California consider establishing a high-frequency bus network to link its distant cities? The maximum speed of a vehicle might matter less than the total travel time required. Although trains can speed through the countryside more quickly than buses, stops along the way add to their journey time. Express buses on the highway can make good time using existing infrastructure, although they would perhaps need the help of special traffic lanes to help reduce journey times.

Buses have lower passenger capacities and tend to be more frequent than most trains. Could a combination of less time spent waiting for departures, fewer stops along the journey and less land sacrificed for the route make bus travel, rather than a high-speed train, the best intercity option for Californians?