Visitors to the California State Railroad Museum usually come for a look at our steam-driven past. However, an exhibit that’s drawing crowds this summer offers a glimpse of what likely will be the Golden State’s future.
The museum’s “Fast Tracks” exhibit, which opened late last year, takes visitors inside the cockpit of a series E5 Shinkansen bullet-train simulator that was imported from Japan. There, they can take a seat and experience high-speed rail firsthand using the interactive controls.
The California High-Speed Railway Authority, the organization responsible for designing and building the state’s first high-speed railway system, has said: “By 2029, the system will run from San Francisco to the Los Angeles basin in under three hours at speeds capable of over 200 miles per hour.”
The Bee recently spoke with the Phil Sexton, the museum’s historical interpreter, about the exhibit.
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Q: What exactly does high-speed rail mean?
A: High-speed rail is a relative term. In the ’20s, high-speed rail meant 35 miles per hour. Today, high-speed rail generally indicates a train that goes over 150 miles per hour. High-speed rail is powered by electrical motors with wires overhead … The accident ratio is much, much lower than other rail transport systems because they’re on their own sets of rails. High-speed rail trains don’t compete with freight trains. There aren’t road crossings. So conductors have the confidence of going 200 miles per hour without worrying.
Q: How does the “Fast Tracks” exhibit work?
A: The high-speed simulator at the “Fast Tracks” exhibit came from Japan. Before arriving here, it was used to train locomotive engineers. The simulator projects a video display and users can stop, slow and speed up the train. The screen shows actual video of a platform with people waiting at a line north of Tokyo. The video also includes virtual elements. For example, toward the end of the simulation, users can touch the air-horn and virtual people waiting at a station will react to the sound by stepping back.
Q: Is this type of virtual simulation new for the Railroad Museum?
A: We haven’t done anything like this before. The newest item we’ve had has been a 1971 Amtrak locomotive. For the first time we have something not from the past, but from the future of passenger rail. It took nine months to implement the exhibit, arrange for international shipping, and come up with agreements for the $650,000 simulation system to come to America. The Japanese simulator is the only current simulation on exhibit, but the larger goal for the Railroad Museum is that it slowly introduce more interactive elements.
Q: How has the “Fast Tracks” exhibit been received?
A: The kids really love getting engaged with the simulator. They line up all the time. They’re so excited to push that throttle forward that you see their eyes light up. But we also see that with the adults.
Q: What is the ultimate goal of the exhibit?
A: We want our patrons to understand that history is not just the past. It’s also the present. The goal of the exhibit is to engage and get people thinking that there’s more to railroads than old steam engines. High-speed rail will play a bigger role in transportation in the 21st century, but it’s really just a continuation of what people have been doing since the first railroads were invented. People have always been trying to make things faster.
Emily King: 916-321-1038
What: An interactive high-speed rail exhibit
When: Through November
Where: California State Railroad Museum (125 I St., Sacramento)
Cost: Museum admission is $10 general, $5 for youths 6-17, free for kids 5 and under