High Speed Rail Debate Continues In California; KCLU Takes Us For A Ride On Japan's Bullet Trains

Jun 15, 2017

One of the biggest political battles in California right now is over a $60 billion dollar plus plan to build a network of high speed trains.

While you’ve heard the debate about the need and cost of the bullet trains, what are they actually like? The 200 mile an hour trains have been in use for years in Japan.

KCLU’s Lance Orozco reports from Tokyo, where he takes us along for a ride on a bullet train.

We are at Tokyo Station, the main intercity rail terminal in Tokyo, and the busiest in Japan.

We’re preparing to board a bullet train which will take us to Kyoto, some 320 miles away. It feels like an airliner, but with wider seats. Here, in their version of first class, you have assigned seats. You stow your luggage at the back of your car, and a few moments later an attendant arrives with moist towels to clean your hands. The train leaves promptly. There are no last calls. The train just goes, and you better be on board.

Their on time record is incredible. The most recent numbers show trains on the 1700 miles of bullet train routes in Japan overall are with a minute of being on time. As you travel, there are no free peanuts or pretzels, but a roving cart will sell you snacks, or even a glass of wine.

Even through we’re traveling at around 200 miles an hour, it doesn’t feel like you’re in a train, with the lurching you might expect. It’s more like an airliner in smooth air. Wally Schrager of Pittsburg is traveling with his wife, and daughter, and says the trains are comfortable and efficient. Schrager says the 140 minute trip is much faster than flying, especially if you factor in time to pass through security at the airport.

Fellow bullet train traveler Tomoko Yamata is from Osaka. She says the trains are a popular way to get around the country, because they are easier than flying. Yamata admits cost is definitely a factor, especially if you travel first class on the bullet trains, with larger, reserved seats. Green pass tickets, which are like first class, are more than $140.00 each.

We’re soon pulling into Kyoto. You have to stay alert for stops, because you have less than two minutes to get your luggage together, and get off the train before it leaves.

Japan has embraced the bullet train, carrying more than 350 million passengers a year. California’s planned network is still more than a decade away, with the initial LA to San Francisco leg planned to go online in 2029, with a projected cost of more than $64 billion dollars.

Opponents contend that astronomical number is unrealistically low, saying it could easily be another 20 to 30 billion dollars. Supporters say with the state’s highways, as well as the LA to Bay Area air corridor the busiest in the nation, and the state’s population expected to grow from 38 to more than 50 million dollars, the train network is essential. They also say in its first year of operation, the pollution reduction would be the equivalent of taking 31,000 cars off the state’s highways.

But, the costs could derail the whole project, and have drawn strong opposition from a number of groups.

The Public Policy Institute of California did a survey last years which showed two thirds of Californians think the bullet train concept is important, but half of them identify cost as the key issue. The technology is proven, and in Japan, the system is efficient, but whether California is willing to embrace the cost is the big unanswered question.