Friday, July 22, 2011




Want to know what a California high speed rail system might actually be like? What might be some strengths, flaws and weaknesses in current plans of the state commission working to get such a system built? Or who might ride it?

One good way to find out, some readers of this column have suggested, might be to ride one of the systems operating in other parts of the world. So it was that on a cool, drizzly morning in late June, a California columnist boarded second-class coach No. 18 of the maroon-colored Thalys bullet train that zips 316 miles between Paris and Amsterdam, two sprawling European metropolitan areas separated mostly by farmland. That’s just about 40 miles less than the distance between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Intermediate stops were scheduled in Brussels and Antwerp, Belgium and Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

You immediately notice that this is a very long train. Even with luggage that rolls, it’s a long way from car 1 near the gate in Paris’ Gare du Nord (North Station) to No. 18, third car from the engine at the front of the train, way out near the end of the platform. That’s far beyond the glass roof sheltering the lower-numbered first-class cars from the light rain.

This train is popular, packed, maybe loved. You can’t miss the throngs on the platform. Every seat in coach 18 has been booked; but there is no discomfort. Plenty of leg room. Plenty of space for baggage of all sizes overhead or at the front and rear of the car. Four airlines operate between Paris and Amsterdam, but thousands of passengers preferred the train this morning, even though it costs a bit more than many flights and significantly more than an ordinary train – even for second class.

Seating at the lowest price levels is far wider, more supportive and comfortable than on hedgehopper flights between European cities.

All this might indicate the California High Speed Rail Commission is correct in figuring that plenty of California residents and tourists would prefer the train to almost any airplane, even at a premium price.

The terrain traversed by the Thalys is, if anything, less interesting that what passengers would see from a California bullet train. And far, far less interesting than what passengers might watch if and when San Diego and Sacramento are added to the California system.

The parts of northern France and the Low Countries crossed by the Thalys are mostly open fields, with no mountain ranges or coastlines, and only one smallish body of water, the Zuider Zee. No one is riding this train for the scenery.

California would offer far more diversity, along the coast north of San Diego, over the Tehachapi Mountains north of Los Angeles and crossing the Coast Range between planned stops in Merced and San Jose.

It’s also true that if the California route were changed to run along the Interstate 5 corridor between Grapevine at the northern foot of the Tehachapis and whichever Northern California point from which it might head west over the Coast Range, the scenery would be no more boring than what’s offered by the heavily-used Thalys. Instead of wheatfields and pastures, an I-5 route would pass cotton fields, almond orchards and more as it paralleled much of the California Aqueduct.

Smooth might be the one word to describe riding on the Thalys. The railbed feels cushioned. Almost like butter. That’s for the entire route, most of which sees the bullet train coursing along the same rights of way as other passenger trains at a maximum 187 mph.

And while some Central Valley farmers who insist high-speed tracks would disrupt their hugely productive operations, it’s plain this route is surrounded by prosperous farms – many overrun during World War II by German Panzer divisions and later by American and British tanks and infantry. The thought arose while riding that America would look very different today if ranchers had prevailed with objections to Transcontinental Railway tracks traversing their land.

One other item: When passengers begin debarking at intermediate points like Brussels and Antwerp, almost no one gets aboard to replace them. This suggests bullet trains may not be for short- or intermediate-distance commuters. Today and typically, just over half those who board in Paris stay with the train all the way to Amsterdam. Maybe ordinary trains and cars suffice for shorter commutes.

This reality suggests cities like Bakersfield, Merced, Fresno and San Jose might never produce the passenger numbers California planners say they expect, calling into question the need for so many expensive stations and stops.

Meanwhile, the columnist found the Thalys loaded not only with business folk talking shop for most of their three-hour, 18 minute ride, but also families with kids, college-age travelers and assorted types not so easily categorized.

They seemed to love the ride and reached Amsterdam looking more relaxed than when they left Paris. All of which suggests a bullet train could work well in California – but only with significant changes to the current plan.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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