When my husband, Matt, and I first moved to our home in Atwater 24 years ago, we became friendly with Walt and Frankie, a couple in their early 80s who lived in the house behind ours.
We shared a property line, and so we agreed to split cost and labor with Walt and Frankie to build a rail fence strong enough to contain our horses. It was midsummer when we started the project, and so we began working in the early mornings to avoid the heat. Walt would meet us at the back fence and together we dug, measured, sawed and hammered until afternoon, when Frankie would stride out to the work site and demand that Walt come in and get some lunch.
Matt and I would go off to our house, where we lingered as long as possible, until, looking out the back window, we’d see Walt take up his place to resume construction. After deep sighs, we’d trudge out to the fence, and once again we’d dig, measure, saw and hammer. At night, when the sun went down, Walt set up lights so we could continue working. Frankie appeared occasionally to yell at Walt to come in, but he would pretend not to hear her.
What Frankie might not have known was that Walt, though a productive worker by anyone’s standards, did not spend all of those hours working. He spent a good deal of time talking, too, his shovel planted in the ground. It did not take much to get Walt to talk, and we soon learned that asking just about any question would prompt a long story, giving us an opportunity to stop working for a while, too.
One story Walt told us was about his home before he’d moved to Atwater. He and Frankie had lived for more than 40 years in a house on the outskirts of south Merced, on the property where Golden Valley High School now stands. It had been one of the heartbreaks of their lives when they were forced to sell their property to the Merced Union High School District to make room for Merced’s newest high school.
They would never have done it on their own accord, even though they were paid a price that allowed them to buy a much bigger home in a more desirable area of the county. Frankie and Walt had memories that tied them to the old place until they died. They never fully recovered from the move, and I cannot drive by Golden Valley today without thinking about them.
But today, Golden Valley High School is embedded in the culture of Merced. Thousands of students have graduated there over the past 23 years. The school has a solid reputation and employs at least 100 teachers and probably even more staff members. Most people do not know about what Walt and Frankie had to give up to make Golden Valley a reality, and in the long view almost everyone in Merced would agree that, though a few landowners were unfortunately displaced when Golden Valley was built, the school’s benefits to our overall community greatly outweigh Frankie and Walt’s sacrifice.
Among the people who would probably express such an opinion are those opposed to California’s high-speed rail project on the grounds that it will alter a way of life for landowners in the HSR corridor. This seems to be the predominant argument of Citizens for High Speed Rail Accountability, who state on their website that HSR in the Central Valley will “generally disrupt (their) way of life,” even though the site also suggests that HSR might not be so bad if it were located along Interstate 5, presumably ruining someone else’s way of life.
Though opponents also quote varying predictions of failure for HSR, the recurring argument against it from farmers seems to be a resistance to the change it will bring to their farms and communities. I get that. I hate change, and I would not be happy if state authorities wanted to lay train tracks in my backyard. Change is sometimes terrible, bringing with it loss and unforeseen negative consequences. But it can also be positive, especially when it is carefully considered and weighed from every conceivable angle, and in cases throughout the history of progress, someone has always had to give up something for the greater good.
Opponents of HSR like to claim that it will never be self-supporting, but examples from across the globe prove otherwise. In Japan, Italy, Germany and France, high-speed rail systems have been successful in moving people around for decades.
In Japan, the Shinkansen rail system, which connects major hubs throughout the country, has been in operation since the mid-1960s. It is true that the initial costs exceeded estimates, as often happens in large-scale infrastructure projects, but today the Shinkansen carries more than 150 million passengers per year at an average speed of 155 miles per hour. In Italy, where the first HSR system opened in 1977, high-speed rail is all the rage.
Today, Italy has both privately owned and government-owned systems, fueling competition which has driven prices down for riders even as the demand for HSR has increased. New lines with faster speeds (remember, we’re talking about Italy here, home of the Lamborghini) are under construction throughout the country, some of them connecting with France’s TGV, a high-speed rail system that has been in operation for more than 30 years. As of 2009, China had 742 miles of HSR, with 5,612 additional miles of HSR systems under construction, and Spain had 994 miles of HSR tracks, with 1,374 miles under construction. Turkey opened its first line in 2009. High-speed rail isn’t disappearing. In fact, trains are getting bigger and faster, and more and more countries are embracing and improving on HSR technology.
The United States is getting left behind.
These trains have encountered some problems – they do not always travel as fast as they were designed to go, partly because the line has more scheduled stops than planned. And train fares in some countries are substantially higher than those estimated by HSR authorities for California, which may be an indication of underestimated prices for California HSR.
A trip from Tokyo to Kyoto, about 318 miles, costs approximately $117 in U.S. currency. Still, as anyone who has made the long slog by car to L.A. and farther south knows, $117 isn’t so bad, especially when one considers the cost of staying overnight to avoid driving 12 hours in one day. And for many, the cost will be compensated for by avoiding the stress of navigating “The 405” on a weekday or traversing the Grapevine during a winter storm. Will families be able to afford tickets on California’s HSR? Many will not. For large families, taking the car will be cheaper, and in the Valley, cost will be prohibitive for many. But the benefits to our Valley’s economy will be significant, and those benefits will have a positive effect on families throughout our region.
Eventually, those tickets might not be out of reach for the majority of Valley residents.
Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.