Japan’s 50th bullet train anniversary: What it says about CA

Japan’s 50th bullet train anniversary: What it says about CA

shinOct. 1 marked the 50th anniversary of the beginning of commercial operations for Japan’s bullet train system. The Shinkansen is by far the most successful bullet train network in the world. The British press and just about no one else outside of Japan thinks this is a big deal. Of course it is a big deal. Historians see 1964 — with the Summer Olympics being hosted in Tokyo, the debut of the world’s first bullet train linking Tokyo and Osaka, and Japan’s emergence as a consumer electronics giant — as the year in which Western powers realized Japan was an economic and technological juggernaut, not a crippled loser of World War II.

But from a Californian’s perspective, what’s interesting in reading up on the Shinkansen is how strikingly different the approaches are of the Japanese government and California government in their vetting and decision-making processes — how one was so thorough and one was so cursory.

In the past week, I’ve read big chunks of  Cardiff University professor Christopher P. Hood’s 2006 book, “Shinkansen: From Bullet Train to Modern Japan,” as well as contemporaneous newspaper and magazine coverage on Nexis.com.

The big three differences:

1. The quality of planning. The Japanese government’s leaders and analysts saw what the U.S. had done with the interstate highway system in the 1950s and were aware that rail was considered passe in some First World nations. But because of densely crowded urban conditions around Tokyo, the extreme cost of land and, well, Japanese conformism, they didn’t believe a U.S.-style car culture would emerge — but that a fast train network would have huge appeal. Key point the rest of the world doesn’t know: Japanese companies pay employee commuting costs. Think what a gigantic distortion that would have on how a government would approach the bullet-train debate and transportation in general were that the CA norm.

California’s planning was horrible. It was based on such insane claims as this: The California bullet train would eventually carry 4.5 times as many passengers a year (117 million) as Amtrak (26 million), which operates in 46 U.S. states and four Canadian provinces. In the run-up to the 2008 Proposition 1A vote authorizing $9.95 billion in state bond funds as seed money for the project, state leaders made up stuff as they went along about ridership, ticket cost and job-creation effects. They may have even believed what they were saying.

2. Honesty about who would pay. It wasn’t even debated in Japan — everyone accepted that a huge infrastructure project would require massive government subsidies. In California, from day one, we’ve been encouraged to pretend that there would be vast interest from private-sector investors despite a law that bans revenue or ridership guarantees that are de facto promises of subsidies. Such guarantees are the only way there would actually be private-sector investment interest.

Here’s another interesting angle about government ethics and the Shinkansen. As Japan has expanded the project far from its original Osaka-Tokyo configuration, it’s made conscious decisions to add distant cities that wouldn’t have heavy enough ridership to break even on operating costs. Why? To make it seem like a national system, not one limited to privileged areas.

There’s not a single area of the bullet train project in California where officials have been remotely as honest about how they made tough but potentially unpopular decisions. Instead, we see Jerry Brown’s pathetic drivel in which he mocks all skeptics as “declinists.”

3. Government competence. Japan by and large avoided Big Dig-like construction debacles while building a system so good at moving people around central Japan that much of the country feels like a Tokyo bedroom community. It carries 300 million passengers a year and some segments make big operating profits.

The blended plan epitomizes CA incompetence

In California, there is scarcely any evidence of comparable government competence. There are 10,000 examples, but one tells the whole story.

The main reason to have a bullet train is to swiftly and conveniently move a person from Point A to Point B.

But in the Golden State — under a plan that Jerry billed as saving the project from a public backlash by cutting its cost from $98 billion to $68 billion — a traveler on the bullet train network going from San Francisco to Los Angeles wouldn’t have such a straightforward journey. She would have to go from Point A to Point B to Point C to Point D.

Part one: Going on regular rail from San Francisco to Fresno.

Part two: Going on an actual bullet train from Fresno to the northern edge of the Los Angeles County exurbs.

Part three: Going on regular rail from north L.A. County to Union Station in L.A.

So the first hour and the last hour of the San Francisco-L.A. trip wouldn’t even be a bullet train experience.

Brilliant, Jerry, just brilliant.

So am I saying if the  shrewd Japanese government of the 1950s and 1960s had overseen Cali’s project, we’d be seeing much more defensible and reasonable results?

Not in the slightest.

Japanese leaders would have realized how stupid it is to push for a bullet train network in a spread-out state that symbolizes sprawl to the world. Not our numbskulls.

3 comments

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  1. LetitCollapse
    LetitCollapse 6 October, 2014, 08:22

    This was a pretty good article that illustrated why a bullet train which succeeded in Japan would undoubtedly fail in California.

    However, one key point was missed. Cost and convenience to the actual traveler.

    Look, a RT fare on Amtrack from LA to San Francisco is currently about $120. The trip takes 12 hours.

    However, I can purchase a RT airfare from LA to San Francisco on several airlines for $140. The trip takes about an hour.

    Now, the claimed bullet train travel time from LA to San Francisco is 2 hours 30 minutes. But that does not include stopovers – and as noted in this article pointed out there would be at least 2 stopovers and transfers from regular trains to the bullet train. This would undoubtedly add a MINIMUM of 2 additional hours to the trip. Total travel time: 4.5 to 5 hours.

    Okay, now lets look at the fares. The fares to travel by the bullet train would certainly increase to recoup the costs of building and operating the train. You can rest assured that the CURRENT ticket price (RT $120) would get jacked up BY AT LEAST 75%. More realistically, probably by 120%. However, let’s stick with the more conservative increase. $120 +75% = $210.
    So it would cost you a minimum of RT $210 to take a 5 hour trip that would cost you RT $140 and take you ONE HOUR if you traveled by air. So which one would you choose? Do you like sitting on trains for 5 hours at a time?

    Now do you realize how stupid the bullet train is?

    Look, instead of spending trillions on the Marshall Plan and subsiziding Japan after WW2 we should have build our own super train system and urban transportation system. But we didn’t. Now it’s too late. Our economy simply doesn’t have the velocity to finance it. So we’re stuck with what we have. Hell, we don’t even have the money to repair our bridges and infrastructure. For the love of God – how are we going to finance these pie-in-the-sky transport systems??? lol 😀

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  2. John Seiler
    John Seiler 6 October, 2014, 11:43

    Japan (145,925 square miles) and California (163,696) are about the same size geographically. But Japan has 126.7 million people, 3.3 times California’s 37 million.

    Reply this comment
    • LetitCollapse
      LetitCollapse 7 October, 2014, 03:37

      Yes. Good point. And one reason Japan has survived as long as it has is because the Japanese are good little automotons, who do as the government tells them without question. If the gov tells them to ride the train, they ride the train. And it doesn’t hurt (as Chris pointed out) that their employers pays their commuter costs. The average American has a love affair with his car. Many love their cars more than their spouse. Look at all the one occupant cars on the freeway during rush hour. The other day I took 5 separate counts at 5 separate locations. The results were about the same. 8 out of 10 cars had only a driver with no passengers. That’s the reason the USA licks the boots of Saudi Arabia even when their leaders are making pro-ISIS statements in public. Biden has asked them to cool it because it makes us look like hypocrites. lol.

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