Dutch Television Takes a Look at California’s Lagging Rail Infrastructure

A 200 mph train in the Netherlands. A Dutch TV crew asks: will California ever catch up? Photo: Wikimedia Commons
A 200 mph train in the Netherlands. A Dutch TV crew asks: will California ever catch up? Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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When it comes to safety, well-designed people-oriented streets, and infrastructure overall, the Dutch do it right.

At Streetsblog, we are unabashed Nederlandophiles (is that a real word?). So when a producer at RTL Netherlands TV tracked us down a couple of months ago to see if we wanted to participate in a news segment looking at California’s efforts to modernize its rail system, we were happy to help.

The report finally aired in the Netherlands this week. So what did the Dutch news team conclude about the state of California’s train efforts?

Let’s just say we look pretty odd from the outside. A half-century ago the U.S. sent men to the moon. That was accomplished¬†in just eight years. But now the country is so politically dysfunctional that it can’t mange to build a simple rail line in its wealthiest state, connecting that state’s largest cities, without the project dragging on for several decades.

But we’ll let the Dutch news team speak for themselves. If you don’t have it set already, make sure to turn on the subtitles to see the translation:

Have you spent time in the Netherlands or other countries with modern rail systems? What do you think about California’s projects? Let us know your reactions in the comments below.

  • We don’t need Dutch TV to tell us the obvious. Just step outside and ride Muni or BART or Caltrain.

  • crazyvag

    I’d say that Caltrain is one of the few “functional” systems in Bay Area or at least taking solid steps to get there.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Caltrain derailed at a walking speed at their main terminal less than a month ago.

  • crazyvag

    True. I’ll give you that one. Good thing the number of Caltrain derailments over the last 10 years is pretty miniscule.

  • p_chazz

    As with most TV journalism, it just asks questions while people wring their hands and call it a wrap. I don’t see what a tiny densely packed country like the Netherlands and a sprawling state like California with twice the population and tent times the area really have in common.

    Maybe if we had a command economy and an authoritarian government like China we could get CHSR built. After all, Mussolini was able to make the trains run on time.

  • Trying to impose the Netherlands situation on California would fail in every region except maybe the Sacramento / San Joaquin river delta, which kind of IS like the rural parts of the Netherlands.

    The Streetsblog people want to create their own Operation Market Garden in terms of transport planning, and it will fail just as the original one did fail militarily.

  • Kevin Wood

    I lived in the Netherlands for a year. The Randstad (Amsterdam, Rotterdam, the Hague + Utrecht) contains rough the population of LA county. The whole country could be roughly comparable to greater southern California. If you just compare the Dutch rail system to Metrolink +Amtrak you’d be roughly apples to apples.

    There were 6 trains per hour from the Hague to Amsterdam. 20 Hours a day, and hourly service midnight to 4 am. LA to Anahiem you maybe have 2-3 trains an hour during commute times, and once per hour the rest of the time

  • cygp2p

    You don’t need to “impose the Netherlands situation” to get a more economically and environmentally sustainable transportation system in California.

    Also, nobody is trying to run high speed rail to the Modoc plateau or Eureka, so the whole “BUTBUTBUT CALIFORNIA’S POPULATION AND GEOGRAPHY IS DIFFERENT, we can’t use high speed rail like they do!!” is a dumb argument deployed solely by obstructionists to whom the idea of actually changing land use and transportation to benefit the people who live there now and in the future is a scary anathema.

  • “the idea of actually changing land use and transportation to benefit the people who live there now and in the future” — funny how those people who actually DO live there don’t want your Luddite policies.

  • cygp2p

    I live in California. I was born in California. I want high speed rail and land use changes.

    Also I don’t think the Luddites would appreciate high speed rail, considering they destroyed machines replacing their labor. Just an idea.

  • I was also born here, I have lived here longer than you I will bet, and in large part you got your policies and “land use changes”. That’s precisely the problem. People can no longer afford to live in the bay area where they work because of that.

    If you want your New Amsterdam, try building it on the bayfront and see how far you get. Foster City and Harbor Bay Isle were grandfathered in.

  • Michael Escobar

    If L.A. County had the taxing power that the US Federal government has, and if the LA County “Federal” budget spent the same on defense as the Netherlands does…

  • cygp2p

    and in large part you got your policies and “land use changes”. That’s precisely the problem. People can no longer afford to live in the bay area where they work because of that.

    Wait, your brain thinks housing prices are high because of a bullet train that doesnt exist, TOD that don’t exist, walkable community policies that don’t exist, and multi-family upzoning policies that don’t exist? Because thats the land use I’m talking about.

    I think you are pointing your anger in the wrong direction, homie.

  • SuperQ

    The funny part is, the Dutch trains are some of the worst around Europe. The photo above is a Thalys train, it’s a French company, not Netherlands. It has to run on separate tracks from the Dutch trains because the NS rail system is on too low a voltage (1.5kV DC) to get enough power to run faster than 130kph.

    The French trains run on the modern standard 25kV AC, the same system that is being used for the new Caltrain electrification.

  • Bernard Finucane

    IT’s just a troll. Is goal is to get you to react.

  • Bernard Finucane

    This is about the part of California that is densely populated. The mountain ranges don’t need trains.

  • p_chazz

    But the mountain ranges still need to be crossed to connect Northern and Southern California.

  • Lauren Bertrand

    It’s strange hearing Calfornia being referred to as our country’s “wealthiest state” in relation to a coveted rail line. Yeah, I get it: fifth largest economy, high median household income, concentrations of millionaires, &c &c. But the poverty rate has skyrocketed, and it is only because the ultra-rich are doing so well and are so abundant that the Golden State Number Crunchers can sweep the unpleasant reality under the rug. California has morphed to an inverted bell curve of wealth, and, until the state can address its rampant unaffordability, homelessness, and increasing public health issues (including threats of diseases long eradicated in the developed world), the construction of a high-speed rail line comparable to the mediocrities in Central Europe, let alone Netherlands, seems like a serious white elephant.

    And why would this state be so politically dysfunctional, given that it has become increasingly politically homogeneous? Isn’t the opposition party (the GOP) reduced to basically third-party status in many CA jurisdictions?

  • p_chazz

    California has become politically dysfunctional precisely because it has become increasingly politically homogeneous. Look at the localities where the Democratic Party has dominated for decades: Detroit, Chicago, Baltimore, New York. Parties need opposition parties to keep them honest. With an opposition, they become corrupt and self serving.

  • p_chazz

    Definition of a troll = anyone who disagrees with my POV.

  • Amerisod

    The sad thing is that many people don’t realize that we suffer needlessly in this country due to poor infrastructure. Trains are slow? Well, that’s just the way trains are. Can’t walk or bike to the store or transit? Well, there’s a busy road, what do you expect, special bike and pedestrian paths? People just don’t realize how much more livable some other countries are.

  • TakeFive

    This is so true; however the inverse is also true but in different ways. I guess it’s pick your poison.

  • Bernard Finucane

    That is not the generally accepted definition.
    A troll is someone who posts inflammatory remarks to provoke reactions. If you think this poster isn’t a troll, have a closer look at the profile.

  • Bernard Finucane

    It’s mostly flat as a mater of fact. California is ideal for high speed rail because the population is distributed along a fairly narrow corridor. Th big mountain ranges are in the East, where few people live.

  • Claude

    The thing to remember is that LA isn’t Amsterdam. But another fact is that a few decades ago, neither was Amsterdam.
    It was a car choked sprawling mess like LA, until they made a conscious decision to make the roads open to all forms of transportation.
    I see no reason to assume the Dutch are so much better than Americans that we can’t do just as well.

  • Claude

    Didn’t they need to cross mountain ranges to build HSR in Japan? They managed to build the tracks just fine.
    There’s no reason we can’t be just as successful in the dense corridor down the Central Valley.

  • p_chazz

    The urban areas may be mostly flat, but mountain passes still need to be crossed to get from one part of California to the other. Tejon Pass is over 4,100 feet. Cajon Pass and Tehachapi Pass are each about 3,800 feet. By comparison the highest elevation in the Netherlands is less than 1100 feet.

  • p_chazz

    Yes it can be done, but mountains require extensive tunneling and grading which adds greatly to HSR costs. From Tunnel Talk:

    The California high-speed rail system could require 45 miles to 50 miles (72km to 80km) of tunnels ranging in length individually from several thousand feet to more than 20 miles (32km) under a cover exceeding 2,000ft (610m) at certain locations. Geologic, hydrogeologic and seismic conditions along proposed routes through the California Coast Range in northern California and the Tehachapi and the San Gabriel Mountains in the south will be challenging and will include highly variable geotechnical conditions, groundwater pressures exceeding 50 bar, active fault crossings and formations with high potential for methane gas


    None of these conditions exist in the Netherlands, where the highest elevation is less than 1,100 feet.

  • Amerisod

    I think it can definitely be done here. It will have to be if we want to contain the climate crisis. Imagine if we started when the Dutch did instead of building auto based sprawl for the past few decades.

    But that does go back to what I was thinking. I used to think European cities were always like they are, and only recently read about how the Dutch got fed up with traffic and kids getting hit by cars and started changing things. We need more people here who actually want to change things and realize that thing can be different. I wonder if The Netherlands was different because a large portion of the country remembered life in walkable communities. Here, many people have never experienced it.

  • Antistuff

    The US is a huge dysfunctional political mess, and California is a huge state with dysfunctional politics too – no different really.

    America’s large cities are all generally more liberal, but they are also singular and have different issues, they aren’t failing by any objective measure. Red state partisans see everything politically unfortunately, despite red state cities being very liberal too. Dallas, Austin, Birmingham, Philadelphia, etc.

  • Claude

    So you agree that building in California is more like Japan.
    We’ve already tunneled through the Tehachapis more than a century ago, so it’s not like we don’t have the technology. In fact, it’s improved even since the Japanese drilled their tunnels through their own seismic area a half century ago.
    We have all the technology and, if we’re willing to spend it, money needed to build the train. What we’re lacking is the political will to make what the people voted for happen.
    And time equals inflation. The longer we wait, the later and more expensive it will be to build.

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