California HSR "Assured" and "Ordinary" in Kids Book

Can a children’s book have an affect on transportation policy? Can it give a push to create California High-Speed Rail? Elisha Cooper’s Train may just achieve that in its own quiet way.
View of California High Speed Rail train crossing from Oakland to San Francisco. Image: Elisha Cooper
Having a two-year old child means reading books to her. I often go to the library to check out books. Some are good. Some are boring but colorful. But once in a while the book is both good for kids, and has a bigger message beyond kids.

Train (2013), by Elisha Cooper is a story that takes us on a train journey across America from New York to California. We start off at a Grand Central Station inspired commuter rail station, and arrive at a suburban station. As commuters get off the train, an Amtrak train passes by, which we then follow. As the story progresses, we cross the country switching types of trains, from commuter to passenger long-distance, to freight, to overnight passenger, and finally high speed rail.

The book grabbed my attention for showing a high-speed rail train in a book that treated the train as regular as any other train. Many perceive high-speed trains as futuristic, or fantasy – but placing it in a children’s book as just another train made it feel so normal. It felt as if we should expect the train, just like we expect new construction at an airport, or expect the next technological advancement.

"Train" cover. Book by Elisha Cooper.

Blue Amtrak train passes commuter train. Image: Elisha Cooper.
I asked Cooper how he came up with the idea of the narrative of switching train types and including a high-speed train.
"There’s love for trains in America, especially with children, but not enough.  We’re a car country.  In some small way I wanted to address that – show where our country needs to go.  So this book is about trains, but it’s really about travel.  How travel is transporting, in both senses of the word.  That’s my hope at least.

[Regarding the narrative,] when I started this book, I knew I wanted to write about all kinds of trains, but couldn’t figure out how.  Then it struck me that I could have different trains pass each other.  That was my way into the book.  I saw how these trains could leap-frog the reader across the country all the way to San Francisco.  Since I now live in New York, but used to live in the Bay Area, this journey seemed right.

Cooper is optimistic about the prospects for high-speed rail’s future in California.  

Finishing [the story] with a California high-speed rail train in the imaginary, but hopefully not-too-distant, future was a hopeful gesture.” [emphasis added]
Too often, the reporting about high-speed rail makes it sound fanciful, futuristic, or silly. With catch phrases like “train to nowhere” and “crazy train”, it’s hard to promote the expensive project. (The "nowhere folks of San Joaquin Valley chime in at Atlantic Monthly.) It’s a classic case of a project that no-one has ever seen in America and few have experience elsewhere seems crazy (just like build the Golden Gate seemed in the 1920s). The book makes it seem like a normal idea that is inevitable.

Top: Passenger tree "meets" HSR train. Bottom: Classic overnight (slow) passenger train passing alongside a high-speed train in California. Images: Elisha Cooper
The images above reminded me of my train trip through Tehachapi Pass on the Coast Starlight (when the train was rerouted from its usual coastal route to the San Joaquin Valley and through the Tehachapi Mountains instead.)  The image above looks just like the view along the Edison Highway east of Bakersfield when it changes to Bena Road at Towerline Road.
View looking north on UP alignment east of Bakersfield along Edison Highway. Image: Urban Life Signs.

On a more fascinating note, Cooper shows the train crossing San Francisco Bay from Oakland on a new bridge rather than via a tunnel. I imagine he chose a bridge in part due to the fact that bridges are more visual than tunnels. The image shows it on a low slung bridge crossing mashes on Oakland’s shore, and then ultimately across to San Francisco.

However it made me want to revisit the notion that building a rail bridge over the bay might be a better idea than building a tunnel. At the very least, the idea should be considered. We may all believe that a new bridge would “desecrate” the beauty of the Bay, but many felt the same about the Golden Gate Bridge impending desecration of the Golden Gate strait. Now we see the two as intertwined. When considering the high cost of infrastructure, a bridge could be much cheaper than a tunnel, as well.

Train showing California High Speed Rail train crossing from Oakland to San Francisco. Image and text: Elisha Cooper
In fairness, Cooper’s airy, matter-of-fact book doesn’t intone that a bridge is better, but it does open the door to the possibility. In addition, it does show that car traffic to the Bay Bridge is clogged, while the HSR train moves quickly and freely across the bay.

On how he decided to make bay rail bridge, and its style, Cooper stated:

The bridge over the bay just came from reference photos of bridges over marshes, though I probably was thinking about Roman aqueducts.  I also had fun with the idea of placing wetlands in Oakland.

If there were a rail bridge from Oakland (or Alameda) to San Francisco, it would likely be similar to the San Mateo Bridge, with a low profile close to the bay in the east, but rising to a high bridge near San Francisco. However, it would likely stay high as it reach San Francisco. Finding a place for the bridge to land wouldn't be easy, but the only candidates appear to be Rincon Hill (like the Bay Bridge) or Potrero Hill (as was planned for the second crossing.

Image: California Highways

Incidentally, his San Francisco rail station is above ground and inspired by Santiago Calatrava.
I was definitely thinking of Calatrava, but not his station in Lisbon.  He has one in Liège I thought was beautiful, and ones like the PATH train here in New York (which I ran by yesterday and saw under construction).  I looked at other European stations, old and new, and threw everything together to come up with an odd design of my own. 

San Francisco's rail station in Train. Image and image text: Elisha Cooper
Liege Station. Image:
Cooper next books an animal alphabet book.  “Last year my walls were covered with paintings of freight trains, this year it’s tigers and iguanas. 

You can read more about Cooper and his books at his website:


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