Joe Mathews: Germany can teach California a thing or two on high-speed rail

Gov. Jerry Brown rides a high-speed train in China in 2013. Joe Mathews says Germany’s system is a better model for California.
Gov. Jerry Brown rides a high-speed train in China in 2013. Joe Mathews says Germany’s system is a better model for California. The Associated Press

Will California’s high-speed rail system be German enough?

That may sound funny, but it’s a more important question than the ones Californians have been myopically asking about the costs, funding and construction deadlines of the controversial project.

The value of high-speed rail lies not in costs or speed, but rather in how it anchors deep connections – between transportation hubs, cultural attractions, cities and jobs. And German high-speed rail excels at these connections.

The secret is that German rail stations double as vital public spaces where people can gather, shop and be entertained. Many stations are built as bridges over railroad tracks or highways, literally linking neighborhoods.

If California’s high-speed rail can reproduce the German model and create a system that deeply binds the state together – and that’s a big if – then even a $100 billion investment might be a bargain, given the economic and cultural benefits. But if high-speed rail can’t create robust connections, then the worst predictions of its critics – that this is an epic waste of money – could well prove true.

In his must-read report for the German Marshall Fund, Eric Eidlin, a community planner with the Federal Transit Administration, compares California’s plans with high-speed rail systems around the world. German cities have integrated planning of rail stations and city centers, and Eidlin praises Fresno for considering its high-speed rail station alongside a remake of Fulton Mall.

The report also warns Bakersfield about putting its station outside downtown and away from its existing rail station. And he argues for “blending” high-speed rail tracks with other trains – an aspect of the California proposal that has been criticized for slowing trains down – so they can use the same station platforms and make transfers easier.

I got my first taste of German-style rail connections last month after landing at Frankfurt’s airport, where the station mixes shops, restaurants and departure points for buses and regional and long-distance trains. I needed to get to Cologne, which is exactly the same distance as Los Angeles to San Diego, a trip I often make on Amtrak.

The Frankfurt-to-Cologne section of Germany’s ICE high-speed rail service is considered a good model for what California wants to do, since it is a relatively recent construction. A one-way second-class ticket cost me $68. While my Amtrak trips to San Diego take nearly three hours, the ride to Cologne took 56 minutes.

The train was a little dirty, with trash in the seat backs, just like on Amtrak back home. The real difference was the speed, and I confess I was spooked. On turns, it felt like the train was going to take off like a plane. The train also psyched me out with screens at the end of each car showing our speed, which reached 180 mph. (California’s is supposed to be faster, at more than 200 mph.)

The first stop was Siegburg-Bonn, a bustling station with a movie theater and connections to local trains and buses. Cologne’s station was much bigger, had the retail offerings of a mall and sat right on the Rhine River. The station was just a few steps from the Cologne Cathedral, a Gothic masterpiece from 1248, and within walking distance of the center city’s hotels, museums and offices.

High-speed rail doesn’t require saintly public officials; Cologne is famous for its corruption. But high-speed rail does require vision, governance and collaboration among different agencies and cities.

The bad news is that collaboration and governance are hardly strengths of today’s California. The good news: High-speed rail offers us another chance to develop those capacities. And if we struggle, we can always import a few Germans to show us how.

Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.