Calif. Leads in Push for High-Speed Rail

A Eurostar high-speed train. President Obama said that the U.S. plans to invest billions in its own high-speed rail initiative. California is leading the way, with visions of an 800-mile network criscrossing the state.

Could high-speed rail one day come to a city near you? In his State of the Union address this week, President Obama proposed billions for rail transit to create jobs of the future. But as CBS News correspondent John Blackstone reports, the challenge is convincing Americans to give up their cars.

In Davis, Calif., Marty Devault starts his day facing a long and brutal commute. It is some 75 miles from his home near Sacramento to his office in San Francisco. The freeway is routinely jammed. but Devault doesn't sit stewing in traffic. He climbs on a commuter train and settles in for a relaxing hour-and-a-half ride.

"This is a much more civilized way to travel," he said.

Civilized, yes - but imagine how much more civilized this it could be. California envisions a network of trains crossing the state within 10 years. The trains would run up to 220 miles an hour, making the trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2 hours, 40 minutes. It's a six hour drive.

The plan got a big boost Thursday when President Obama announced $8 billion in grants for high speed rail - with the biggest chunk going to California.

"The state of California is getting $2.3 billion towards our high speed rail project this is really great great news," California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said recently.

That's a small part of the $42 billion price tag, but to get construction started on the planned 800 miles of track, California voters have already approved almost $10 billion in bonds.

"The people have understood the difference between spending and investing in our future, and building the high speed rail is investing in our future," Schwarzenegger said.

"I would say it's almost like building the original railroad from east to west," said Tony Daniels, the project manager for California's high speed rail initative. "This is a massive project."

Daniels knows what a battle it has been to bring super-fast trains to the United States. He moved here from England 30 years ago with dreams of modernizing American rail travel

"China does it. All Asia does it. The Japanese, the French, the Germans - Why not us?" he said.

Daniels says building high speed trains is more economical than building more roads or expanding airports.

"It's taken a long time for finally the U.S. to turn around and recognize that there's another mode of travel like this that can save billions of dollars," he said.

But critics say the plan is on track to waste billions of dollars on trains most Americans won't use.

Dedicated train riders like Marty Devault do see promise in high speed rail - but American travelers now largely ignore train travel as an alternative even as they crawl on crowded freeways. The challenge for high speed rail is to change America's entrenched car culture.

  • John Blackstone
    John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.