The German Marshall Fund put out a report in June on the lessons California could draw from the well-developed HSR systems in Germany and France. Most of the different points it lays out boil down to one essential, overarching approach: make HSR central to a larger transportation system that includes other alternatives to driving and is focused around smart growth. Successful high-speed rail requires more than just laying tracks between cities and buying fancy new rail cars.
Specifically, the report warns against putting stops in sparsely populated areas because that slows trains down. Put them only in the center of major cities, recommends report author Eric Eidlin, as Germany has done. The ICE train, for example, makes no stops during the two-hour journey between Berlin and Hamburg. France, on the other hand, has often dispersed train stations around the urban periphery and the result, Eidlin notes, has been not just slower trips but less-efficient connections to other modes of transport. “California should carefully consider the economic development and access challenges that French cities such as Aix-en-Provence and Avignon have experienced with exurban and peripheral stations,” Eidlin writes. “Thankfully, California has made the wise decision of siting most HSR stations in central cities. However, one notable exception to this is the proposed Kings/Tulare station east of Hanford, which would be located in an exurban location.” Also, the Milbrae and Burbank station locations will be in less accessible areas.
One difference between German and American train travel is what you see out the window. On Amtrak’s Northeast-corridor route, you can spend seven hours traveling from Boston to Washington, D.C., without ever passing a farm. Each city’s suburbs bleed into the next. When leaving Berlin, on the other hand, in less than half an hour you’re whisked from the capital’s center to cornfields and cow pastures. This reflects not just the train’s speed but the absence of sprawl in Germany. The suburbs—a handful of detached houses with pitched roofs, many featuring solar panels—whiz by in a few minutes.
Despite, or perhaps ironically because of, Europe’s greater density, you are far closer to the countryside when in a major city. There is no equivalent to the U.S.’s unending hellscape of highways, strip malls, fast food drive-thrus, and auto-body shops. Europeans’ cities were more built up before the car, and they didn’t then tear their cities apart to accommodate cars and facilitate sprawl, as Americans did. The U.S. is so vast that we could pave everything within 200 miles of New York City and still have more than enough land for its corn and cows. But if Europeans wanted to preserve rural areas, they would have to use urban space more efficiently, and so they have. A much greater share of the typical European metro area’s population is concentrated in its inner city. So you get dense, transit-rich cities with countryside in between. If building an HSR station in a suburb or smaller city is absolutely necessary, the groundwork should be laid with a new mass-transit hub around it.