Despite Spain crash, California proceeding with high-speed rail system

(CBS News) SAN FRANCISCO -- Despite Wednesday's train tragedy in Spain that has killed at least 80 people, high speed rail is one of the safest ways to travel, generally speaking. It's so much a part of life in Europe, Japan and China. But it's only a dream here. The best hope for it is on the West Coast.

This screenshot from an animated video shows California's proposed high speed rail system. CBS News

In the video above, an animation shows how California's proposed high-speed rail system will carry passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles in less than three hours at speeds up to 220 miles an hour.

But is it possible to travel more than 200 miles an hour safely on a train?

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"Yeah, sure it is," said Dan Richard, chairman of the state agency building the railway. "The Japanese have shown that we can do that -- 50 years of operation with their high speed train."

Dan Richard is the chairman of the state agency building the California railway. CBS News

Construction is due to begin this September.

"If we don't build high-speed rail in California to meet the needs of the 50 million people that we're going to have in the next 20 or 30 years," said Richards, "we have to build more freeways, more airports and do more things that are going to cost a lot more than the high speed rail system is going to cost."

The fastest train now in service in America is the Acela, running between Boston and Washington, D.C. It is capable of going 150 miles an hour but averages just 80 miles an hour because it goes through densely populated areas on sections of track shared with commuter trains.

California's largely flat, wide open central valley provides the kind of space needed to hit top speed for long periods. But the train won't serve San Francisco and Los Angeles for at least 15 years.

The state started planning this project 17 years ago. A lawsuit and opposition in Congress could yet block the start of construction.

  • 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.