Editorial: My French Teacher and California High-Speed Rail

Reflections on being trapped in a recurring nightmare of misinformation about rail

France's first generation of TGV, capable of 186 mph, in 1983. Photo: Rudick
France's first generation of TGV, capable of 186 mph, in 1983. Photo: Rudick

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In 1983, I flew from New York to France to start an exchange program for junior high-schoolers in Belleville-sur-Saône, a village outside of Lyon, about 300 miles south of Paris. After our grueling overnight flight, my group of ten students from Long Island arrived at one of the main train stations in Paris for the trip to Lyon.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that experience lately, and my first experience with High-speed Rail, in light of the latest attacks on California’s HSR project. Just in, the Trump Administration is trying to withdraw federal funding for the project:

I grew up riding the Long Island Railroad, New York subways, and Amtrak to Washington D.C. I’d read of this new train called the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV), French for high-speed train, which, at the time, was by far the fastest train in the world.

When my class arrived in Paris on that exchange, there were two trains to Lyon on the departure board. One left in five minutes, the other in 30. The later one was a TGV.

“Mr. Bartol,” I asked sleepily of our teacher from Long Island. “Why don’t we wait 30 minutes and take the one marked TGV?”

“Why? There’s a train in five minutes. We can make it.”

“We’ll get there faster if we wait and take the TGV.”

I still remember him chuckling. “Roger, how can a train that leaves later get us there faster!”

We spent the next five or six hours on a hot, uncomfortable train with no food except for some candy bars. We got to Belleville sometime after dark.

Now I feel as if I’m waking up every day to a new Mr. Bartol moment of people in charge not understanding the most basic things about high-speed rail, except this time with far greater repercussions. There was last week’s vomitus of false reports that Governor Newsom was killing the project, which lead directly to the Trump Administration’s move to pull funding. Shortly before that, the Mercury News published a story from the so-called Reason Foundation which argued, simultaneously, that nobody will ride high-speed trains, but they’ll pull people from electric cars.

Sunday morning Rep. Mark DeSaulnier’s, who simultaneously votes against all possible funding streams for HSR and then complains that it has no funding, published an op-ed which argued that “California high-speed rail was a vision–but without honest project management. Compare that with the Golden Gate Bridge, whose vision was supported by project management that resulted in the on-time, under-budget, fully funded icon we laud today.”

The Golden Gate bridge was completed in 1937, more than 30 years before the passage of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration existed. How about comparing the HSR project to something contemporary, such as the Eastern Span of the Bay Bridge, which came in 26 times over budget! So what has DeSaulnier done to push for CEQA reform or to address administrative problems that cause so much trouble with mega-projects?

Certainly, there are issues that need fixed with California’s HSR plans. But most cost overruns can be traced to delays caused by the very opponents who then argue the project should be killed because of cost overruns. It’s also a victim of too much outsourcing of oversight and management and arcane federal grant requirements. But, again, none of this is unique to HSR–it just gets an incredibly outsized amount of coverage.

Ridership of the TGV over time. Image: Wikipedia
Ridership of the TGV over time. Image: Wikipedia

Of course, after the Paris to Lyon TGV line opened in 1981, France used the profits to keep building; as seen in the above chart, ridership boomed. Soon other countries emulated that success and built their own networks. The HSR system in Europe now reaches all over France, Spain, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and the U.K. The trains have also gotten progressively faster, with the newest ones going 220 mph while consuming less electricity.

It’s no coincidence that U.S. per capita carbon emissions are 3.6 times higher than in France.

When it was time to return to New York, the teachers from France booked our tickets. We took the TGV to Paris and arrived, on time, in just two hours. Even Mr. Bartol was impressed. He apologized for dismissing my suggestion to take the TGV the first time.

Wouldn’t it be nice if American politicians who don’t know a thing about trains and infrastructure projects beyond a few sound bites and memes, showed the same humility?

  • Mark Paulson

    Ridiculous crap.

    Is the train project on time and on budget ? No ? Let California pay for the rest of it.

  • p_chazz

    According to Bloomberg, French rail operator SCNF runs at a $3 billion deficit annually, despite a $14 billion subsidy from the state. It has a debt of $45 billion, equal to the national debt of New Zealand. Meanwhile, TGV is losing market share to planes and buses. Your boyhood dream has turned into a nightmare.

  • José Gregório

    You’re putting SNCF’s public service legal obligation into the discussion (which entails regional services). The topic of the post is high speed rail.
    – Eurostar, that runs London – Brussels/Paris/Amsterdam high speed rail services, reported for 2017 a profit of $75M
    – AVE, the Spanish high speed rail, is the market leader in the connections between Madrid and Barcelona. Between Brussels and Paris (200 miles) the plane is scarcely used.
    High speed rail is just the best option for everyone who wants to achieve higher productivity while traveling (if you go to Europe, you’ll see people using their travel time to actively work – which is not possible in the plane or in the car). Furthermore, investments on new airport runways or freeways are no longer needed.
    If you go beyond your short horizons you can turn your worst possible nightmares into a very positive reality.

  • mihsf

    You are completely mixing facts and don’t understand the difference between high-speed rail and public service obligation.

  • mihsf

    The Channel tunnel has been delayed many times due to extremely complicated technical difficulties. The cost overrun was huge. It was not profitable at first. Eurostar is now profitable and Eurostar high-speed trains have almost completely replaced plane travel between London, Lille, Paris and Brussels. The new line expansion to Amsterdam and Rotterdam are already a huge success.
    A bit an reasonable ambition is not bad, you know. Including funding such realistic projects.

  • p_chazz

    The fanboys chime in.

    “Eurostar, that runs London – Brussels/Paris/Amsterdam high speed rail services, reported for 2017 a profit of $75M”

    So, one rail service out of how many manages to squeeze out a profit. Bravo!

    Meanwhile, from a French news service: “The number of passengers transported on trains in France dropped in 2016 by 1 percent and between 2011 and 2016 the average drop in rail passengers services is 0.5 percent. “This drop in usage reflects a relative loss of attractiveness of the rail model, while other modes of transport show growth over the same period,” noted [French rail regulator] Arafer.”

    “In France an average of 48 trains run daily per kilometre of track which is a fairly poor level of usage compared to other countries. For example the Netherlands runs 140 trains per kilometre of track each day and in Switzerland it is 119. Even the UK (96) and Germany (75) make more use of its rail network than France does.”

    “50 percent…of passenger trains that run on just 9 percent of the country’s tracks, meaning half of all services run on just under 10 percent of the total tracks, which illustrates a strong disparity for the use of the network…31 percent of train lines carry just 1 percent of services. In other words a third of the network is not economically viable and could face closure.”

    I suppose this is what you mean by the public service legal obligation. It’s not that trains are inherently money losing, it’s stifling French laws that keep them from reaching their potential.

    But, if trains are the way to go in France, why are people abandoning them in favor of buses? It’s telling that Roger’s chart stopped at 2010, so as not to show the decline in passengers transported after that date.

    “[P]assengers transported on trains in France dropped in 2016 by 1 percent and between 2011 and 2016 the average drop in rail passengers services is 0.5 percent. “This drop in usage reflects a relative loss of attractiveness of the rail model, while other modes of transport show growth over the same period,” noted Arafer.” Meanwhile, long distance coach travel increased 14 percent.

    More glum statistics about French rail service here:


  • Pietro Gambadilegno

    If any highway project is not on time or on budget, don’t give the federal share of funding and make the state pay for it.
    Ridiculous crap, indeed.

  • Pietro Gambadilegno

    You are missing the point. He wrote that you need to use figures that include only high-speed rail, which is successful, and not conventional rail. You reply by using figures that include all rail, high speed and conventional: “The number of passengers transported on trains in France dropped in 2016 by 1 percent.”

    That is a really dumb answer. Tell us about the number of passengers on high-speed rail instead.

  • keenplanner

    The Shinkansen in Japan operates in the black, and profits are used to expand the system.
    If HSR is such a disaster, why is France now converting nearly all the spoke lines from Paris to TGVs? They now only consider regular rail to smaller, shorter lines.
    Did you know that France has the #1 rated health care system in the world (according to WHO) and the US spends twice as much per capita for a #37 rating? We’re about even with Cuba, one of the poorest countries in the Northern Hemisphere.
    You should consider getting a passport and going to France (or any other industrialized country, or Uzbekistan) and take a train ride.

  • Mark Paulson

    California promised to hit certain benchmarks.

    They failed.

    Pay for it yourself Cali.

  • Roger R.

    We’d love to. California is, by far, the state with the biggest GDP. About 2.4 trillion dollars. Unfortunately, thanks to our weird proto-democratic system, we get the same number of votes in the U.S. Senate as Wyoming. As a result, DC keeps siphoning off all our tax revenue and making us beg to get back some scraps from a senate run by a nincompoop from Kentucky.

  • Max Wyss

    The overall drop in passengers can be assigned to strikes at SNCF (among others).
    OTOH, your source is correct with the rather bad usage of the network in many places.

  • Blaine2008

    You hit it on the head, anti HSR folks in USA never having ridden a true high speed train should not complain and knock something they have never experienced. Once ridden “thy blinkers will come off and heads pulled out of the sand”. Yes you are talking 1981 when France first had a TGV, its now 2019 and the US 38 years later still has no HSR!

  • Blaine2008

    Who pays for the “freeways”.. yes the taxpayer! Nuff said. Zero payback!

  • Claude

    Isn’t it a shame that our failed system allows people in Wyoming to have rights? We should be a true democracy and the few big states with the votes should be able to treat the less populous states as slaves and peasants, as they deserve.
    Long Live the Oligarchy!

  • Mark Paulson

    America doesn’t need a train in California. AND they missed the promised benchmarks. Pay up, Bloods.

  • Mark Paulson

    Then pay for it.

  • Mark Paulson

    Yes. Ridiculous crap.

  • Roger R.

    That’s a complete strawman (misrepresenting my position). What I’m saying is an individual in Wyoming should only have as much power to influence budgets as someone in California, not far more. The system that has evolved in the U.S. is completely absurd and undemocratic. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/46b8e53c58a7660233fdaa0cf9d8a87e63e0ffbab38d6104b7729130d6acc980.png

  • Claude

    And I’m talking about the practical, real world effects of the largest states having total control of the House and Senate.
    As designed, the less populous states aren’t “over represented”. The Senate isn’t intended to represent the voters, but to represent the states. So each state gets the same number of representatives to defend the rights of their state.
    The House of Representatives represents the people of the states directly, so they’re divided by population, so some of the smaller states only have one representative. In terms of defending the interests of their voters in the House, those states can be considered “under represented” as compared to the voting blocks of larger states like NY or Texas.
    That was the basic intention of the way our government was designed. By amplifying the power of the small states in the Senate, it balances their weaker position in the House and the ability of the larger states to exploit them for resources is limited.
    It may not be perfect, but it beats the alternative of the coastal elite being able to run roughshod over the “flyover” states…unless you’re in the coastal states and chafing at the inability to simply take what you want from Montana.

  • George Joseph Lane

    Translation: “some rich dudes in the 1770’s thought we should run our country this way, so it’s totally fine that Claifornia subsidises highway projects everywhere else but can’t get money for rail”.

    And America wonders why the world laughs at them.

  • Claude

    The senate wasn’t intended to justify any state subsidizing highways. They can do that with their own money under any political system. It was intended to equalize the political power of the states so the big states couldn’t take whatever they wanted from the small states without considering the rights and needs of the small states in return.
    So a more accurate translation would be, “If California wants to use federal money for highway projects, they have to give Montana funds for their infrastructure projects in exchange for votes. They can’t just take the money from Montana and leave them swinging in the wind.”
    The difference in political power between heavily populated and less populated areas is why most democracies collapse soon after founding, and the balance of powers between large and small states is why our republic has survived over 200 years.
    And that is why the rest of the world respects our stability.

  • George Joseph Lane

    A: Small (swing) states are robbing big states, not the other way around. This is why the only serious independence movements are in Texas and California.
    B: Literally no one in the western world respects your country’s stability. We openly laugh at the gridlock and bipartisanship in your government.

  • Claude

    And yet, despite the widely fragmentary nature of American culture and vast geography we haven’t descended into a continual round of civil wars resulting in collapse and splintering into a cluster of squabbling countries shooting across the border.
    If only we had true democracy, where the only protection the small states had were open warfare, we could be Yugoslavia.
    If we thought the Balkans were a model of progress and stability to emulate.
    Now, what’s this about “we” and “your”? Are you another European busybody telling us how to run our country? Maybe you missed the last broadcast from your Parliament, where they have lines on the floors to keep the members far enough apart to prevent sword fights.

  • George Joseph Lane

    Congratulations, you have reaffirmed the stereotype that Americans know nothing about foreign countries.

    Some European parliaments have *retained* as a historical monument the lines originally installed to separate parties and prevent swordfight that happened in the 18th century. In that era it was common for politicians to kill eachother. For example, Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel with a political rival.

    Yugoslavia wasn’t a ‘true democracy’ it was a totalitarian dictatorship. It is completely irrelevant to your argument. Of all of the wealthy western nations America was actually the most recent democratic one to have a civil war. So it doesn’t seem like your system is particularly good at holding together a ‘fragmentary’ nation (not that America is particularly fragmentary).

    European countries don’t ‘shoot across the border’ either. There were violent civil wars following the break up of the eastern dictatorships, but the most recent European war was Iceland and the UK in the 70s. The US has been to war with it’s neighbours in central American and Cuba several times since the 50s.

    The we and your is because I’m from New Zealand, where we actually have a representative democracy. Though I love the irony of you complaining about ‘European busybodies’ telling you how your democracy could be better when your country is currently very loudly and openly supporting a military coup against a democratically elected government.

  • Claude

    Having seen broadcasts from the House of Commons, I’m going to suggest that they keep the sword lines. That looked like a riot waiting for an excuse to start. Much more entertaining that watching our senate sit around saying, “Our esteemed colleague may have an error in his assumptions…” Boring!

    Fortunately, parliaments tend to be unstable and break down frequently as alliances shift, so that limits the time available for fighting.
    I already knew Yugoslavia wasn’t a democracy. They were an amalgam of conflicting cultures, much like America, but they didn’t have a mechanism to protect the rights of the minority populations from the majority, so when the Serbians had the chance Bosnia was in serious trouble.
    I’m glad to hear they only have limited attacks, like the Korean peninsula has. Much better than mass killings, don’t you think?
    Fortunately, America is also not a democracy. We’re a constitutional republic, based on the rights of the individual, so the majority can’t simply do as they like with the minority. We have rule of law instead of rule of whim. So the fragmented and conflicting cultures can share the space without coming to open conflict. We have lawyers do it for us.
    Democracies, as Juvenal said at the beginning of the second century, only last until the people discover that they can vote themselves an unlimited supply of bread and circuses.
    Oh, and congratulation to New Zealand for being officially declared a continent. Now maybe people will stop thinking it’s part of Australia.