Can the Asian Example Save California High Speed Rail?

San Francisco, November 8 – High Speed Rail systems in Japan, Korea, China, and across Europe are popular with riders, consistently turn profits, and significantly reduce both auto fatalities and CO2 emissions. California needs to pay close attention to these models, and do a better job of educating its residents and taxpayers on their advantages. That was the main conclusion of an expert panel convened by ASNC to look at the future of High Speed Rail (HSR) in California.

The night’s discussion centered around one question: how can California make its high speed rail system (HSR) viable? The United States’ passenger railway systems pale in comparison to those in Asia and Europe. Steve Boland of Nelson/Nygaard Consulting acknowledged that there is no HSR in North America, but that California is poised to change this. The main issues for HSR in California, he said, are customer appeal and up-front costs.

For Tian Feng, the District Architect for BART, the key challenge is making HSR a viable alternative to driving, and the way to do this is by focusing on design, marketing, and services that make rail travel easy, attractive, and economical. Feng pointed to the Gare du Nord and St. Pancras Eurostar stations as prime examples how good the HSR experience can be: with a gourmet restaurant right next to the platform, he joked, customers can “drink and ride,” not drink and drive.

Arup’s John Eddy and Rod Diridon of the Mineta Transportation Institute both agreed that the environmental case for HSR needs to be made much more forcefully. To accommodate population increases between now and 2050, Diridon said that California can either build HSR or build two major international airports and three thousand miles of new freeway.  Put that way, he said the case for HSR becomes even more compelling..

One significant HSR advantage in Asia, Diridon said, is regulatory. In Japan and China rail authorities are permitted to own, and build on, the land around the tracks and the stations. Rent and sales of office buildings, department stores, and hotels have a significant impact on the bottom line. But in California, Diridon said, regulations block this sort of leveraging. This, coupled with Governor Brown’s pulling the plug on redevelopment agency funds, makes for serious financing challenges.

The program was part of the Asia Society’s Pacific Cities Sustainability Initiative (PCSI).  PCSI brings together global experts on urbanization from academia, governments, and the private sector, with the aim of fostering long-term collaboration and the sharing of best-practices for addressing complex urban sustainability problems and developments around the Pacific Rim. PCSI’s guiding principles are to showcase and share solutions that emphasize livability for urban citizens, and those that ensure that the cities of today and tomorrow are built, designed, and governed to address the needs of all inhabitants.