I Already Own a Bullet Train
If you're of a mind someday to whisk conveniently between Fresno and Buttonwillow -- and, hey, who doesn't daydream about that? -- California will have you covered. Traveling 220 miles per hour (mph), you'll get from "nowhere" to "nowhere" in a brisk 30 minutes.
You're right: "nowhere" is a harsh way to describe two hardworking towns in a valley better known as the "Food Basket of the World." But I'm just quoting one-time representative, former California State Assemblyman Rusty Areais, who snivels that "'[n]owhere' will never share the relative prosperity of this state until we do something about its relative isolation" (audio). According to Rusty, racing through "nowhere" at 220 mph will finally put "nowhere" on the map. Don't blink denizens of Merced. "Your" "share" of California's "prosperity" just whizzed by.
On the other hand, maybe former Assemblyman Areais does have a point. With California careening toward bankruptcy, who wouldn't want to join him down there in "nowhere," isolated and cut off as he says it is from the rest of the profligate State?
But this is not about Rusty and his one-time constituents, nor the near-term absurdity of driving to Fresno to shave (at best) 60 minutes off your S.F.-to-L.A. trip. Nor is it about the fact that most of us never consider taking currently available plane service from Fresno to Bakersfield, the first part of the proposed route. Nor is it even a fatalist's view of the twilit Golden State with its elsewhere-schemed commuter service, replete with meticulously maintained train stations where no commuter train will ever arrive. My entire point here is that I already own a "bullet train" capable of 175 mph, available 24/7, anytime I choose, right outside my door.
It's called "my car." And the ultra-high-tech thoroughfare required for it to perform is called "a road."
If Jaguar sales figures are to be believed, most consumers do not buy two-door GT vehicles with only two useful seats, as I have. My unscientific study on the matter strongly suggests most Californians buy lumpen minivans that preternaturally occupy the fast lanes in order to exactly match the speed of the 18-wheeler they somehow refuse to pass. (I could be biased, here.)
On a recent driving trip to Denver, and without admitting to illegally speeding, I took good advantage of the straight and utterly empty roadways between San Francisco and there. On the roundabout way home, in Washington State, I did get ticketed for traveling 75 mph in a 60 mph zone. The officer was very nice and he even recommended some routes with better scenery. We ended the encounter with a handshake and well-wishes. I'm really glad I didn't blurt out, "75 mph!?! That's not even half what this baby can do!" Let's just say, given what may have occurred in the further reaches of my trip, I got off easy.
Driving is wasteful? My average mileage for the entire 4,200-mile round-trip was 30.1 mpg, well above listed EPA. Not too shabby, particularly since I'm prone to keeping my Jag's glorious engine note at maximum gargle. And 30 mpg is well above what most urban commuters achieve in non-electric cars, jammed as they are on oversubscribed freeways. At any rate, my Jag's 175 mph limit is probably optimistic for travel on a dedicated high-speed freeway. But even minivans on properly engineered roads with available suspension settings beyond "wallow" could safely go at least 120 mph.
Without doubt, driver incompetence could be the flies in the ointment, splattered as they may be on the windscreen. So I cast my eye to California's Grapevine on Highway 5, with its trucks separated from other vehicles, lumbering up and over the mountainous pass. And I fantasize about a similar and hardly inconceivable high-speed freeway that requires certain cars with certain capacities and certain drivers with certain licenses to access segregated high speed lanes -- like HOV (carpool) lanes used today.
On the Grapevine, without any physical barrier separating the dedicated truck lanes from passenger cars, speed differentials between the two can easily exceed 60 mph, one creeping along at 20 mph and the latter zooming by at 85. Drivers seem to get along okay, there.
According to the California Highway Patrol, "speed kills" (PDF). I contend it is differentials in speed that kill, or maybe differentials in capacity. Wherever there is essentially no difference in the overall speed of traffic or relative driver skill, all things being equal, Americans suffer remarkably low accident rates (PDF). Higher speed limits failed to produce mountains of bodies as predicted in the late 1990s when the National Speed Limit was tossed. What really happened is that the few law-abiders traveling unsafely at 55 mph caught up with all the scofflaws already going 70. Highway fatalities (per million miles driven) have dropped precipitously since 1996 (there are compounding reasons, but raising the speed limit was the central universal factor).
In a state that regulates the easily regulatable and overlooks unlicensed drivers operating freely outside the law, entrusting California to certify anything or anyone to a higher standard for access to high speed freeways, à la FastTrak, is probably a pipe dream. But is it any more outrageous than spending hundreds of billions on an inconvenient train starting from "nowhere-near-you" that leaves travelers renting a car at their destination -- or even car-less and marooned? That may work just fine for legislators compensated, as they are, for owning cars at either end, or who have access to California's enormous state-paid chauffeur service. But does that describe you?
Funneling everyone through often-remote train stations for TSA-style pat-downs and backscatter machines to occupy continuously monitored seats in a highly-regulated environment seems an unwieldy and expensive way to travel 600 miles or less. Why not instead let individuals be certified to travel on relatively inexpensive roadways -- cheap to construct by comparison -- using their own safe and high-speed cars? But we can't have that, now, can we?
Pace Assemblyman Rusty Areais, left to live our lives in freedom in a State that advances Freedom's cause, we might even stop by "Nowhere." Imagine that.