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California's bullet train: We owe it to our grandchildren to get this right

Urban planners often fall short when it comes to making train systems as useful as they could be

No one likes mass transit more than me, and trains are my favorite form of it.

They're good for the environment, they are fun to ride, and you zip right past all the planet-killing motorists sitting in traffic. But urban planners often fall short when it comes to making train systems as useful as they could be, which sets the stage for critics who call every idea that doesn't involve more cars a boondoggle.

Here in Los Angeles, getting Metro to LAX seems like job one, but not something we are likely to see in our lifetimes. In New York, direct train connections between LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy International airports remain as elusive as a World Series win by the Chicago Cubs. Idiotic worries about terrorism added a long walk from BART train stations at San Francisco International Airport to the terminals.

Gov. Jerry Brown, who is nothing if not farsighted, is working hard to bring high-speed rail to California, albeit in budget-friendly truncated form, from the Central Valley to L.A. first.

Well, not exactly to L.A.

First it goes to Burbank.

Ralph Vartabedian reports: "As California's bullet train officials begin to lay plans for the system's Los Angeles segment, a major technical issue is coming under close scrutiny: incompatibility between the sleek, high-speed electric trains and the region's older, diesel-powered commuter rail network. … Under the current design, Los Angeles-bound passengers pulling into Burbank, at least in the early years of operation, would have to transfer to a diesel-powered commuter train on another platform for the final 13-mile trip to downtown's Union Station."

It's hard to imagine anyone other than hardcore rail geeks wanting to do that.

Vartabedian talked to proponents of the so-called "one-seat ride" between Merced and L.A. They say the Burbank transfer problem could be solved by "blending the operations of Metrolink and the high-speed system through track-sharing and electrification of part of the Metrolink system, much like what the state is doing with local commuter rail service in the Bay Area."

Alas: "Metrolink officials have been cool to the idea, citing, among other things, the cost and complexity of overlapping operations."

One strongly suspects that the bureaucrats who refuse to roll up their sleeves and get this done plan to spend the rest of their lives behind the wheels of their cars rather than schlepping up and down the stairs at some future Burbank transfer station in 2028.

Which is, of course, the big problem we face: government officials without imagination. This system may not get completed until after our children are middle-aged, but we owe it to our grandchildren to get this right.  They are going to need and want this system to work properly. We can't possibly know what the future will bring, with a few exceptions, and one of them is higher population density.

We drive on freeways that past generations conceived and paid for not only with their tax dollars, but with years and years of loud, dirty construction. This is the part where we repay our debt to the social contract.

Follow Ted Rall on Twitter @tedrall

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