Test ride on a bullet train
If you want to know what a California high speed rail system might actually be like, a good way to find out might be to ride system already in operation. So it was that in late June, this California columnist boarded second-class coach No. 18 of the maroon-colored Thalys bullet train that zips 316 miles between Paris and Amsterdam, two European metropolitan areas separated mostly by farmland, over the approximate distance between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
You immediately notice that this is a very long train and that it's popular, packed, maybe loved.
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.
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. The parts of northern France and the Low Countries crossed by the Thalys are mostly open fields, with no mountain ranges or coastlines. 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 and crossing the Coast Range between planned stops in Merced and San Jose.
And if the California route were changed to run along the Interstate 5 corridor between Grapevine and some Northern California point before heading west over the Coast Range,
the scenery would be no more boring than what's offered by the heavily-used Thalys.
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, along most of which the bullet train travels at a maximum 187 mph.
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.
On this typical trip, just over half those who board in Paris stay with the train all the way to Amsterdam. This suggests cities like Bakersfield, Merced, Fresno and San Jose might never produce the passenger numbers California planners expect, calling into question the need for so many expensive stations and stops.
On this trip, Thalys passengers included business folk, families with kids and college-age travelers, all of whom seemed to love the ride and reached Amsterdam looking more relaxed than when they left Paris.