Shinkansen =”Train Envy”

The California High-Speed Rail Authority made the news after their monthly public meeting last Thursday in San Francisco. They rotate cities throughout the state each month to obtain a wider range of public input. And the Bay Area didn’t fail to deliver, especially on the contentious issue of how the trains would be routed in the existing Caltrain rail corridor along the peninsula from San Jose to San Francisco.

Fundamentally everyone adjacent to the rail line – from the poorest neighborhoods to the richest neighborhoods like Menlo Park and Atherton with multi-million dollar houses – is concerned about the noise not to mention the other impacts of the high speed trains. And of course, the quietest solution of running the trains in long tunnels or trenches is the most expensive option. With the projected costs topping $43 billion (yes that is billion with a “b”), just the cost of this fifty mile stretch from San Jose to San Francisco has many concerned. And dropping or delaying this portion of the line has significant impacts on the potential ridership which drastically changes the economics of the project. As the largest public works project in California in over fifty years, there is well placed concern about the accuracy of the financials especially given the track history of public works. Even the basic ridership estimate models were recently criticized as being “flawed” and unreliable by the UC Berkeley Institute of Transportation Studies in June.

Needless to say in a project of this magnitude there is no end to the issues and concerns. In order to be successful, they all need to be addressed appropriately. However, they should not cause the project to lose momentum and be derailed (pun intended) due to analysis paralysis. To make high speed rail successful in California, and by extension the United States, we need to have the best and brightest working on the challenge and must maintain the political will to continue. And yes, we cannot shirk from the responsibility for the project to be fiscally sound as it continues.

In order to lend my support to the effort, I would like to share a section of my travel diary that I wrote on November 8, 2008 onboard the Nozomi 31 Shinkansen from Shinagawa (Tokyo) to Kyoto:

As an engineer, I’m very excited by the passage of Proposition 1A the High Speed Rail bond. Yes, the strict return on investment (ROI) is very small if not negative. However, as a frequent traveler who has marveled at the high speed rail in Europe and Japan it is very exciting to have some signs of progress in this area.

Until you have experienced a Shinkansen (or TGV) it is unlikely you will know what we are missing in our transportation portfolio. Yes, our population density is different from both Europe and Japan. However, I would suggest that there is a good deal of “build it and they will come” where the rail assets enable higher density centered about the rail corridor. Some of the rail stations in Japan are virtual cities within themselves – everything from food, housing, hotels, shopping and offices.

Given my choice, I would choose using the Shinkansen over flying within Japan. In fact, that is what I did today. I could have flown from Haneda (the Tokyo “city” airport) to Kansai for my flight back to San Francisco. I would have had to leave my hotel at roughly the same time for the trip via plane and the fare would have been slightly higher.

The advantage of the Shinkansen is that is has NONE of the hassles of flying:

  • The Shinkansens run every 10 to 15 minutes – even on the weekends. This is also no penalty for changing your reservation. And there is no problem in getting on an earlier or later train, however you give up your reserved seat without changing your reservation and sometimes the trains are standing room only.
  • I suspect that there are very few delays compared to air travel but I don’t have the data. If there is a problem, they usually move everyone to the next train.
  • There is no need to arrive an hour or so early as one would have to at the airport. You only need to be on the platform 2 or 3 minutes prior to the departure time. This is easy to do since the Shinkansen stations are interconnected with the metropolitan rail systems and subways. Yes, you need to find your way around the station but it is an easy walk and all the staff is helpful if you can’t find your train. But don’t be late since you can set your watch to the trains.
  • There is no bag check and no one weighing your bags. Of course, you’ll want to pack light since you’ll need to carry everything yourself. (There may be porters but I’ve never seen them.)
  • There is no security checkpoint with X-rays and metal detectors. Not only can you carry on water, you can drink whatever you want as long as your behave yourself. On the Nazomi, the person sitting across from me was enjoying an elaborate lunch he had packed and was working on a bottle of champagne during the trip. I’ve seen plenty of beer sold on board consumed by businessmen.
  • There is no need to stay seated during takeoff and landing. You can get up whenever you want to use the restrooms, walk around, etc. When you sit down, you can drop your table and start your meal or pull out your computer.
  • Turbulence? The rails are smooth with only a minor level of vibration. There is a slight wind noise and occasional whoosh when you pass a train on the parallel track.
  • On this particular Nazomi train there was a 110 V power outlet on each row of seats, perfect for powering your laptop.

Now for the real shockers in light of typical American behavior and performance on public transit:

  • The cars are fairly quiet – some conversations at low volume and often many people sleeping. Cell phones are typically not used in the actual cars except for a very quick one or two sentences or texting. If you want to make a call, you go to the vestibules connecting the cars but sometimes that is too noisy to be practical.
  • Roughly three minutes before each stop there is an announcement of the station. If it is yours, you get up with your bags to wait in the vestibules. The Shinkansens are in the stations with the doors open for absolutely no more than 90 seconds unless there is an emergency. There is a countdown clock the conductor and staff uses and I’ve seen stops of sixty and seventy seconds. Being late is not an emergency… The passengers on board get off smartly and the new passengers who have been waiting in the queue area marked on the platform quickly get on board. This is possible since the trains stop exactly at the designated spots on the platform, within an inch or so.

And did I mention that the seats on trains in Japan have cloth on them? Even the subway cars in Tokyo! And the trains get cleaned daily during brief stops. The train from Kyoto to the airport was being serviced when I arrived at the platform. The staff was taking great care to make sure everything was clean. Then with a great sense of pride the cleaning crew stood at the end of the platform and waived to the departing train and passengers. They appeared to be from a subcontracted cleaning firm nonetheless.

In summary, I’m a very big fan of well run rail systems especially the high speed trains. I hope that not only will we learn how to build our system in California using the best the world has to offer, but that we innovate and build the best in class system that becomes the cornerstone of an efficient rail system for both short and long distance travel.

Not only does the High Speed Rail Authority need to manage this program correctly, we need to continue the dialog and education to ensure the public maintains support for this transformative project. We may only have this one opportunity to make this a reality. As much as I like flying Southwest Airlines, I simply cannot wait until to go from the Bay Area to Los Angeles in less than two and half hours via high speed train!

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