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Full steam ahead for California bullet train

(AFP circulated the following article on February 22.)

SACRAMENTO, California -- One hundred and forty years after a transcontinental railroad linked California to the world, trains are being hailed as integral to the stateís growth in the 21st century.

This time, state officials are preparing to spend billions of dollars on high-speed rail lines modeled in part on Japanís Shinkansen bullet train and Franceís sleek TGV systems.

Supporters say an 800-mile (1,200 kilometer) system of trains running at up to 220 mph (350 kph) will cost about half of the 100 billion dollars that otherwise would have to be spent on new highways and airport runways.

They say it will reduce environmental damage, lessen the stateís dependence on foreign oil, create 450,000 jobs and give a huge boost to California businesses. They envision a system, to be completed by 2030, that will carry 90 million passengers a year.

"We need a high-speed rail. Our rail system in America is so old, we are driving the same speed as we did 100 years ago," said California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"We should do what other countries do. All over the world we see high-speed rail. We should do the same in this country, and especially in this state."

With Californiaís population expected to reach about 50 million by 2030, proponents say transportation must adapt to the vastly increased demands in the nationís most populous state.

"It would be difficult, if not impossible, to add that kind of airport capacity and freeway capacity," Quentin Kopp, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, told AFP in an interview.

"Plus, the environmental benefit is just as important, with 12 million barrels of oil saved each year."

Critics call the plan an overpriced white elephant that will never get completed. They say the system will be a huge financial drain on a state already struggling to pay its bills, will have little environmental impact and will not attract nearly as many riders as envisioned by proponents.

And they say promises of a two hour and 38 minute ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles are unrealistic.

"There is little likelihood that the passenger or revenue projections will be met, that the aggressive travel times will be achieved, that the service levels promised will be achieved, that the capital and operating costs will be contained consistent with present estimates, that sufficient funding will be found or that the system will be profitable," said a report on the high-speed train system produced by the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank.

Eleven nations now have true high-speed rail systems, but not the United States. Amtrakís Acela train that connects Boston, New York and Washington runs on conventional tracks for much of its route and does not come close to 200 mph (320 kph).

The heart of the California system would be the line from San Francisco to Los Angeles and Anaheim, the home of Disneyland. Kopp said that phase will cost about 33 billion dollars and be ready for service within about 10 years.

Lines stretching to San Diego in the south and Sacramento in the north could be added by 2025 to 2030 at a cost of up to 15 billion dollars more -- meaning the whole system will cost about 48 billion dollars.

But critics say the final cost of the system is likely to be as much as 81 billion dollars.

And while supporters say the Los Angeles-San Francisco line will generate an annual profit of 1.1 billion dollars, opponents estimate that line will have annual losses of up to 4 billion dollars.

A state proposition passed by California voters in November provided nearly 10 billion dollars in bonds for the system, which is still being designed by engineers and hopes to break ground in 2011.

State officials expect 12 billion to 16 billion dollars from the federal government, and remain optimistic those funds will be provided -- in part from the Obama administrationís 787-billion-dollar stimulus package.

The California League of Conservation Voters supported that state proposition last fall.

David Allgood, the CLCVís Southern California director, said high-speed trains would have many benefits for the environment, as long as care is taken to limit damage caused by construction of the rail lines.

"The advantages are great. Itís more energy efficient and cleaner to move people around on trains than in planes or cars," Allgood said in a telephone interview.

"There are just too many people on the roads. High-speed rail will save a lot on emissions."

Monday, February 23, 2009

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