Yesterday (January 6, 2015) was, according to the media, a momentous day for California. A hole was dug that represents Jerry Brown’s long-time wet dream: the groundbreaking of the California High-Speed Rail line. I will call it CHSR for now, though I’m sure that in time a more speaker-friendly moniker will be made up.
Don’t get me wrong: I like Jerry Brown. I liked him in the 1970s as Governor Moonbeam, and I like him in the 2010s as Mr. Pragmatic, a role he prepared for in the 2000s as mayor of Oakland and Attorney General.
I also like high-speed rail. 25 years ago I rode the Tokaido Shinkansen from Kyoto to Osaka, and since then I have ridden the TGV in France and the AVE in Spain several times. But, as far as I remember, in none of those trips did I simply go from one high-speed rail station to another. For example, when a few years ago my wife and I traveled on the AVE from Zaragoza to Barcelona, we first took a bus from Jaca that took us directly to the intermodal Delicias station (where the bus station is integrated with the rail station), and after arriving at Barcelona Sants it was a simple matter to go to another track and board a suburban train (Cercanías/Rodalies) to Barcelona Estació de França, from where we had a pleasant walk to our hotel.
What I am saying is that in the countries that have working high-speed rail lines, these lines are part of an integrated rail system that includes long-distance lines, regional lines and suburban lines, and bus lines as well. California has no such system, and none is being planned, as far as I know. There is a hodgepodge of individual rail lines with little or no connectivity, the nearest thing being Amtrak’s bus service. Even when several lines meet at the same station, the frequency of trains is so low (some run only once a day) and their punctuality so abysmal (since most passenger trains share tracks with, and give way to, freight trains) that making connections is, for the most part, out of the question.
Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, the only station where our suburban system (BART) connects with other rail lines is Richmond, a location that’s convenient for me (I live in El Cerrito) but not for the bulk of Bay Area residents. And, of course, Richmond is not along the planned route of CHSR. If I am still around when CHSR is complete, as is its full extension to the Transbay Transit Center in San Francisco (scheduled for completion in 2029 — I was born in 1935 — and we know what scheduled completion dates mean in California), then I could, in principle, take BART to Embarcadero, walk to Transbay and take CSHR to Los Angeles. Otherwise I might have to go to Richmond and take the Capitol Corridor to the San Jose Diridon station — a 54-mile (87-km) trip that takes an hour and three quarters. High-speed rail indeed!
The planning of a high-speed line that is not an integral part of an interconnected system reminds me of a similar situation in North American soccer.
There is an organization, called Major League Soccer (MLS), which functions as the Division I equivalent of the likes of the Premier League, La Liga and the like. There is also a Division II North American Soccer League (NASL) and a Division III USL Pro. But, unlike most other soccer-playing countries, these entities don’t form a league system, with promotion and relegation as a key ingredient (though there has been some “self-relegation” from NASL to USL Pro). The system of promotion and relegation is what makes it interesting to follow games in the lower divisions and those involving low-ranking teams (at least for people who are not fans of the teams). Without it, one quickly loses interest. Since its lousy record over the past two seasons I have not followed the team that, by dint of geography, I should be a fan of — the San Jose Earthquakes. (I have actually been a fan of the LA Galaxy, partly because I grew up in Los Angeles and partly because their star was my namesake Cobi Jones [the fact that I write my name Coby is an arbitrary choice on my part], though my loyalty faded when he retired and David Beckham joined the team.)
There is also the matter of MLS’s name. With sports leagues in the English-speaking world, if the word league is part of the name, it generally comes at the end (no need to give examples), even when the “league” is not actually a league but a tournament (e.g. Champions’ League). Why does MLS have it in the middle?
My guess is that Major League Soccer is a calque of the very prestigious Major League Baseball (MLB). But MLB is, at least historically, an umbrella organization for the two major leagues, the American League and the National League, which until 2000 were separate legal entities; it was only then that MLB actually became a league.
MLS was formed well before that, in 1995. But then it isn’t really a league either, at least in the conventional sense of “an association of teams or clubs that compete chiefly among themselves” (American Heritage Dictionary); the “teams or clubs” of MLS are not entities that are voluntarily associated with one another, but units of “a single-entity structure in which teams and player contracts are centrally owned” (Wikipedia) by it. So perhaps Major League Soccer should be read as “Major-League” Soccer; a soccer organization that wants to look like a major league but isn’t really.
The Wikipedia article also notes that “one aspect that had alienated fans was that MLS experimented with rules deviations in its early years in an attempt to ‘Americanize’ the sport.” It isn’t just rules deviations; it’s the fact that a 20-team “league” does not, as do other such leagues, play a standard home-and-home schedule of 38 games with the winner as champion, but follows other American sports in dividing itself into “conferences” with post-season playoffs for the championship, and not allowing (as I mentioned above) relegation and promotion. Since real soccer fans like me can follow European and Mexican football on television, it’s no wonder we feel alienated by MLS.
The San Francisco Chronicle’s columnist Jon Carroll wrote in his column today that, as he was riding the TGV, “[he] thought: Wasn’t this supposed to be our future? Wasn’t the United States supposed to produce the best ideas in commercial transportation? Those are rhetorical questions.”
Perhaps smilar questions can be asked about professional sports organizations.