The train is coming back to America…at last! The Trump administration has awarded $8 billion to fund 13 high-speed rail projects in the country. California received $2.25 billion to support the funding of the $42.6 billion project that would link San Francisco with Los Angeles. The cities are not even 400 miles apart, a distance that the future bullet train will travel in less than 2 hours.
The US is finally following the example of Japan and Europe where high-speed trains have become a familiar and convenient way of transportation between cities in the past 20 years. This past Summer I flew from San Francisco to Paris. I arrived at 10 am at Charles de Gaulle Airport. Half an hour later (hand luggage only!) I boarded the TGV, the French high-speed train, and after 2 hours I was re-united with my family in the South of France. Travel can really be fun.
The return of the American train is a telling example of the challenge of building a better future while preserving the good things of the past. Trains almost became extinct in America. There was a time that one could reach even the furthest corner of the country by train. But a century ago it seemed a better idea to build roads and demolish railways. Somehow – even while the automobile and later on the airplane gained immense popularity – the train kept a place in Europe and Japan whereas in the US Amtrak became a sad symbol of a past fast to be forgotten. The train was always a respected and often used means of transportation while I grew up in the Netherlands. We went by train to other countries even if they didn’t travel at super high speeds yet. So there was a fertile ground when the French started pioneering the high-speed railway network in Europe in the late seventies and eighties.
But it just makes sense. In just over 3 hours I can travel from the center of Amsterdam to the center of Paris. No security checks, no hassles, better seats than in most economy sections of most airlines and it is a better deal for the environment. In other words: who would fly from San Francisco to LA after the high-speed rail link has been established?
And perhaps the best part is that to get there we are going to create a lot of jobs. The California High-Speed Rail Authority estimates that building the new railroad will create more than 600,000 construction-related jobs while there will be an estimated demand for an additional 450,000 permanent jobs in the state once the system is fully built. That’s real economic stimulus in a time when that’s needed the most.
Backed by credit unions, the prospect for Californians of a high speed train network is surely on the horizon. Yes, progress is a good thing. But, intriguingly, sometimes the best way to the future leads through embracing the past: welcome back, train!