John MacMurray: “Look, Boss, the Train!”


Reprinted with kind permission of the LA Progressive.

The San Jose train.

A while back, 1863, actually, in San Jose, California, citizens and business people got together to build a railroad from San Jose north to San Francisco.

At the time, the only transportation available to span the 50 miles between the two cities (although San Jose wasn’t really large enough to be called a city) was by wagon or by steamship. So farmers bringing produce and animals to market in San Francisco or people having business in one of the cities or just visiting, had to put up with the steamship’s all-day transit time, or several days travel by wagon.

And at the time it was being planned and built there was a large amount of criticism of the railroad plan from different groups: farmers complained that the train would disrupt farming; steamship and stagecoach lines complained about the competition; and many folks complained that the price ($7 million) was just too high and the train would never make any money.

And all of these groups were a little bit right and quite a bit wrong. After the railroad, named the San Francisco & San Jose Railroad, was put into operation, the horses and cattle in the farms along the route were spooked for a short time until they got used to the trains, then they settled down and things went back to normal.

The $5 dollar fare (one way) charged by the railroad was half the fare charged by the steamship lines, who cut their fare down to $5 to try to compete, then dropped the passenger business altogether because the railroad had siphoned off nearly all the passengers.

The railroad proved to be so successful that more locomotives and cars were ordered, and thanks to prudent management, the railroad repaid its initial investment and soon was making a profit.

An added and unforeseen benefit was the creation and growth of many small towns along the route. And when the First Transcontinental Railroad was finished in 1869, San Jose and all the farms and people served by the San Francisco & San Jose Railroad had themselves, their commerce, their mail, and their information connected to the rest of the United States.

And the railroad, known today as Cal Train, has run every day since 1863 between San Jose and San Francisco. It still runs several times a day, with Amtrak providing passenger services under contract. The fare is a little higher now, though, as you might expect: one-way costs $8.75.

What keeps this from being just another nostalgia story is that some of the same arguments are being raised by some of the same groups about another railroad, the proposed High Speed Train Project.

Initially, this service will run all-electric, 1,000-passenger trains (about the same passenger capacity as Amtrak’s Coast Starlight and Southwest Chief) between Fresno and Los Angeles at over 200 miles per hour, covering the 225-mile distance in about an hour and a half. Later on, a leg from San Francisco and one from Sacramento will be added.

Having a regularly-scheduled high speed train service will put California’s transportation system on a par with countries like Argentina, Belgium, China, France, Morocco, South Korea, and Taiwan; all of which (along with several others) use a high-speed electric rail system to move their citizens and visitors around.

As with the San Francisco & San Jose Railroad in 1863, farm groups are opposing high speed rail. They argue that the train will disrupt farming. As before, they are probably right, in the short run. Then, as before, the animals and people will get used to the trains and things will settle down.

Transportation companies worried about the competition from the high-speed train may have reason to, at least in some cases.  When France inaugurated its TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse, literally, high-speed train) system in 1981, the decision was made to keep fares on par with conventional rail travel, to avoid the Concorde effect where only the wealthy could ride.

Currently there is rail service on the Fresno-to-Los Angeles route via Amtrak’s San Joaquin; this will take you from Fresno to Los Angeles for $34 if you don’t mind spending four and a half  hours on the trip and making part of it by bus.

Flying is another option. Several airlines provide service. Flying shortens the trip to about an hour and a half, not counting the time spent navigating all of the airport checkpoints; and costs about $200 one way. It also sets you down at LAX, about 20 miles from Downtown LA; not helpful if your destination is any of the government or entertainment venues.

The groups basing their opposition to a California high speed rail system on the costs have a valid point, but as the San Francisco & San Jose Railroad and other systems have shown, prudent management can enable California’s high speed train to recoup its costs and operate at a profit.

Using the French railway system as an example, their TGV has enabled the system to show an annual profit of  €1.1 billion ($1.75 billion), moving over 100 million passengers a year; over 2 billion passengers (over 7 billion in Japan) since the trains were put into service.

John MacMurray, La Habra teacher and former Democratic Assembly candidate.

And then there are the bonuses.  Rather than just trains, think of the High Speed Rail more like part of our Interstate Highway system. Based on the history of the Interstate System and the history of railroads like the San Francisco & San Jose, people will begin traveling more because they can. It will now be easy for people in the Central Valley to come into Los Angeles to see a sports event or a concert, shop, have dinner, catch a connecting Amtrak to Chicago or San Diego, or just ride the train.

And zipping legally through the picturesque Central Valley at over 200 miles sounds exciting just by itself.

And all of this: the convenience, the jobs, the business boosts, and—OK, the excitement– is all ready to go. All it requires is a few people to put partisanship aside and give some thought to the benefits for so many people and businesses.

John McMurray

Posted: Thursday, 5 July 2012

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