What to do With TrainHenge?

Stonehenge is a fascinating monument of mysterious origin. Are we building a similar monument?

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This structure is north of Fresno, on the south side of the San Joaquin River.

The saga of California’s high speed rail project took an unexpected turn when newly elected governor Gavin Newsom decided to cut the project in half. Originally planned to extend from San Diego in the far south to the SF bay area and Sacramento, Newsom’s change of direction would reduce it to the Bakersfield to Merced segment, a distance of about 165 miles. The project is ~as expected~ well over budget, underfunded, and behind schedule. Not one inch of track has been laid but hulking monuments loom over the landscape. If the project is never finished ~and that is a distinct possibility~ one wonders what will become of them.

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The Last Spike at Promontory, Utah. Building railroads was much easier then. We celebrate the 150th anniversary of this event in May.

The project is a victim of the fact that those once open spaces are no longer open. When the first trans-continental railroad was constructed, right-of-way acquisition was a simple matter of surveying a route and laying track. Native Americans might have objected, but most of the land was under federal control and thus readily available. The structures being built in Fresno for HSR reflect the difficulty of finding a usable route. Rather than building on the ground, the planners have chosen to create an aerial path through the city.

As is typical in such instances, this project was sold on questionable premises. First, of course, was the original cost estimate. It was so far below reality that  no one even mentions it anymore. Then it was the promise that it would pay for itself. That might have worked had the original cost held but at $66 billion and rising, it would be a long time happening. Amtrak currently quotes a Bakersfield to Sacramento ticket at about $45. Considering the faster service, one might expect an HSR ticket for the same route to be double. The segment to be built, if it extended to Sacramento, might cost $20 billion. If so, it would take more than 22,000,000 tickets to recover that cost.

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The overpass structure south of Fresno. What could it become?

Traffic reduction was another selling point. It is reasonable to think that some reduction would occur. If so, why is the San Francisco – San Jose corridor still a traffic nightmare? The California DOT, a.k.a. Caltrans, operates the Cal Train service over that route and claims 65,000 average daily riders. The impact on traffic for all that is vanishingly small. To have any significant impact on valley traffic, the HSR system would have to carry at least ten time that number of passengers. Are there a half million  people eager to ride the train each day?

The critics of the project are legion and most of the arguments against have merit, as I have noted. One argument, however, is as fallacious as anything that has been offered in support of it. That is that trains are obsolete. This is a useless argument from the outset, and ultimately meaningless. Yes, it is an old technology in its essence. (I have a poster commemorating 100 Hundred Years of the Railroad that was produced by the Baltimore & Ohio for a centenary pageant in 1927, to illustrate how old it is.) If age is the criterion, the automobile and the airplane, competing transportation technologies are more than a century old. Should we be searching for replacements?

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We are always “putting America to work”.

A line from Bakersfield to Sacramento may still be worth the trouble and expense, though I stand by the arguments that it will never recover its costs and have little impact on traffic. In fact, that route may be ideally suited to a high speed rail system just because the competing technologies do not serve us well. Anyone in the valley, especially south of Sacramento, knows the pain of trying to fly anywhere. If one were to book a flight from Bakersfield to Sacramento, the airlines typically will soak you about $500 and sned you to LAX or SFO in the process. And there is the enjoyable prospect of being scrutinized, x-rayed, maybe frisked or even strip searched in the bargain. Oh, and be sure to leave behind that bottle of whatever that is too large and anything vaguely resembling a weapon.

One more thing on which no price can be placed. People like trains. Given the choice between a bus or the train, most will gladly take the train. The same thing is true of streetcars or trolleys. There is something appealing about trains that cannot be quantified.

Stonehenge is a mystery to us. Its origins are lost in the mists of time. It has its own problems, mostly that it is a popular destination hampered by traffic problems. Perhaps Trainhenge will not be forgotten, all the troubles of its beginnings digitally preserved for the ages…maybe. But if the rail project is not continued, what will it become?

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These Stonehenge tourists can tell you about the traffic problem. They did manage to survive left-hand driving…

 

 

Dawson #1

miners_dawsonToday, February 8, is a somber anniversary. The event is not well remembered, as is, say, the Hindenburg disaster, but just as lethal. On this day in 1923 in Dawson, New Mexico, the #1 mine exploded at about 2:30 PM. The force of the explosion was such that pieces of the entrance portal were sent flying across the canyon, leaving a huge crater. There were 122 victims of the blast and only two survivors. It was the second major disaster in the Dawson mine complex, the first occurring ten years before, in which 283 miners died, my grandfather among them.

The Dawson Cemetery

AHEPA chapters throughout the country commemorated the 100th anniversary of the 1913 disaster with memorials held at many Greek Orthodox churches. These memorials culminated in an observance held at the Dawson cemetery in 2013. Organized by members of the Albuquerque AHEPA family, I attended along with Brother Anthony Kouzounis, Supreme President of AHEPA at the time, and a number of others.

The Dawson mines do not quite fit the usual image of the careless mining company, oblivious to the dangers brave miners faced. The company town was also unusual, to the extent that to this day descendants  and residents of the town come together for a reunion at the town site. The definitive work on the Dawson mines and town is the book,Coal Town: The Life and Times of Dawson, New Mexico by Toby Smith. The book is out of print and if you find a copy, you will find it rather expensive.

The Dawson mines operated for more than half a century before closing in 1950. In that time, some 33,000,000 tons of coal were produced. It was the declining market for coal rather than depletion of the deposit that brought the closure. It is believed that another fifty years supply of coal is still there, should the mine ever be reopened.

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Fishing

Saturday was a fishing day. The FFFC, Fresno Fly Fishers for Conservation, held a monthly outing at Avocado Lake. It is a popular swimming and recreation location and fishing spot. The lake itself was not the target for the day as the Kings River flows right nearby. This stretch of the river is designated as a catch and release area, meaning that any fish caught must be returned to the water, preferably alive. Moreover, only artificial lures may be used -no bait! Trout is the dominant species so it is popular for fly fishing, of which I am a devotee -of sorts. (Another blog will give you an idea of the area. http://www.keepcalmandflyfish.com/2016/12/visit-to-lower-kings-river.html.)

I have been fishing ever since childhood. Kings Canyon was a frequent choice for family outings and we would make our way there once or twice a year from San Francisco, an arduous journey. I remember arriving late at night with the stars shining through the tall trees. Camping in Cedar Grove became a family tradition. My first trip there was in 1946 in old Studebaker sedan. Sadly I do not have pictures from any of those trips though I am certain they still exist.

My father was an ardent fly fisherman but in my earliest days, he provided me a bait casting rod and reel meant for little guys like I was. It was not until my teens that he began to introduce me to the gentle art. I have been fly fishing ever since and greatly prefer it, especially dry flies.

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Michael with his first fish of the year, a 20″ beauty taken from the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam.

However, I have been anything but diligent, fishing only infrequently over the years. Until recently. Allow me to introduce my grandson, Michael. How and when he discovered fishing I do not know, but a few years ago, he discovered the FFFC. The club (which you can find at http://www.fresnoflyfishers.org) has for a number of years held a youth academy. The Roger Miller Youth Academy is an annual event during which interested young people are taught the basics of fly fishing and fly tying. Michael applied with the stated purpose of being able go fishing with his grandfather. We have been members ever since. (There is more to the story, but that is for another time.)

This day, however, Michael could not participate. His schoolwork is pretty intense and he has to devote considerable time to it and give it first priority. We did get out earlier this year, with a very satisfying result -for him, at least. For myself, Saturday was quite productive. We found a hole right near our picnic site where a large school of trout were holding. They must have been hungry (I think they were recent transplants) as several of us were able to take (and release) fish. I caught three, the largest about 13″ and a strong fighter. I was not disappointed. It was a very good day.