“It was a great trip,” he said. “If our high-speed system will look anything like they have in Japan, it will be wonderful.”
In addition to serving as Tracy’s mayor, Ives has been a member of the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission for 18 years. The fact that the rail commission has a role in developing high-speed rail in this region created added interest.
The visit the mayor and his wife, Lynda, took to Japan from May 8 through 14 gave the Ives a chance to ride on a high-speed train — called Shinkansen in Japanese — along the eastern coast of the main island of Honshu.
“We took the Shinkansen from Sendai to Tokyo, a 218-mile trip that took less than two hours,” Brent reported. “What I saw was a train that was fast, comfortable and safe.”
Brent, who had made a reservation with his Japan Railcard, said the bullet train took off from Sendai station on time — “right to the minute.” No Amtrak-like delays there.
Once under way, the Shinkansen gained speed steadily until it approached 150 mph. Maximum speed is 186 mph.
“We were going very fast, but you couldn’t notice it much at all inside the smooth-riding train,” Brent said. “Then, when an approaching train whizzed passed us in several seconds, you could get an idea of our speed.”
According to Brent, the electrically propelled Shinkansen traveled over dedicated tracks that rolled over flat farmland and through tunnels that minimized curves and grades.
“It was a comfortable ride. In fact, Lynda fell asleep while I was talking to a Japanese official,” he said. “And the car was packed — high-speed rail is very popular in Japan.”
The Japanese official was Masadhi Hiraish , deputy director of the Office of Global Strategy for Railway Development.
“He told me how the high-speed rail system was started in 1964 with an $80 million loan from the World Bank, coupled with Japanese funding,” Brent recounted.
The rail facilities are constructed by a government corporation and then leased to three private Japan Rail companies — JR West, JR Central and JR East. The government provides oversight and coordination.
The system now covers 1,352 miles, with another 725 miles planned or under construction, including a major extension to the northern island of Hokkaido, where Tracy’s sister city, Memuro, is located.
“Loans are continuing to be the major funding mechanism,” Brent said.
There were only two stops on the 218-mile trip. The Ives were told that at stations where feeder lines join the main high-speed lines, cars from the feeder train — of the same design as those on the main line — can be attached to the main-line train, so passengers can remain in their seats for the entire trip.
“This concept is important for us, since the rail commission is in charge of planning the line between Merced and Sacramento and also the feeder line that parallels the ACE route of today,” he said.
Brent acknowledges that Japan is a densely populated country of 127 million, so rail travel has traditionally been a larger factor in the country’s transportation mix than in the United States. Japan leads the world in annual rail-passenger miles.
“That doesn’t mean that high-speed rail can’t be successfully developed here,” he said. “We in California have a chance to be a leader.”
Passage of $9.5 billion bond issue in 2008, augmented by $2.5 billion in federal funds, has moved planning ahead for a project that could ultimately cost close to $100 billion.
The main San Francisco-to-Los Angeles route will take trains over the Pacheco Pass between Gilroy and Los Banos, but an extension from Merced north to Sacramento also is planned. From that extension, a feeder line will be established from north of Modesto along the route of the Altamont Commuter Express to San Jose. The route through the Altamont Pass will have to include several tunnels to permit speeds approaching 100 mph. ACE trains now average 35 to 40 mph over the Altamont Pass.
At Vasco Road east of Livermore, a common platform will allow passengers to switch between the high-speed rail and Bay Area Rapid Transit trains.
“The BART line in central Livermore will be tunneled a part of the way in central Livermore, where an underground station will be located,” Brent said.
And yes, the high-speed line could pass through central Tracy, although the route has not yet been determined. If the central Tracy location is selected, there is a possibility the tracks could be below-grade, allowing MacArthur Drive, Central Avenue and Tracy Boulevard to pass overhead without requiring expensive overpasses.
Brent said Japan is eager to be a major player in developing high-speed rail in California. The Japanese consulate in San Francisco has a specialist in this area on its staff. Of course, countries like Germany, Spain and China also have an eye on the California high-speed rail future.
While in Japan, the mayor and his wife visited Tracy’s sister city of Memuro. There they met up with Tracy teenagers visiting Memuro as part of the annual sister city youth exchange program.
“We were treated royally,” Brent reported. “And, oh yes, we paid for the entire trip ourselves.”
• Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, can be reached at 830-4234 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.