HSR Connection to San Jose and SF at Risk

California's State Rail Modernization Project Awaits Audit

A Eurostar high-speed train in England. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
A Eurostar high-speed train in England. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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The state’s rail modernization project, also known as California High-Speed Rail, is now anticipating spending an additional $2.8 billion to complete the 119-mile Central Valley segment from Bakersfield to Madera. “63 percent of which is due to risk factors identified and reported in the 2016 Business Plan, the March 2017 Project Update Report and discussed publicly at the Authority’s prior Finance and Audit Committee,” wrote the authority in a release.

As a result, politicians and state regulators are asking for an external audit, which the authority has welcomed. “Over the years, the High-Speed Rail program has been audited at the federal and state level, in addition to our extensive internal audits,” wrote California High-Speed Rail Authority (CaHSRA) Chairman Dan Richard. “This type of oversight is critical to public confidence in the program and we’ll work cooperatively with the committee to fully address the issues that are raised.”

The authority is saying that the increase doesn’t endanger its federal grants and it will still be able to complete the Central Valley spine, where trains will eventually travel at over 220 mph. However, it does call into question whether the Authority will have enough funds to complete the project’s “initial operating segment” by 2025, which would provide service between San Francisco, San Jose and the Central Valley.

Cost overruns on the Central Valley segment of HSR have drawn questions about completing the connection to the Bay Area (in light blue) by 2025. Image: CaHSRA
Cost overruns on the Central Valley segment of HSR have drawn questions about completing the connection to the Bay Area (in light blue) by 2025. Image: CaHSRA

“Most major infrastructure projects have cost overruns. It kind of goes with the nature of doing big messy civil construction,” wrote Andy Kunz, President & CEO of the US High-Speed Rail Association. “The more the project gets dragged out, the more expensive it is to build.”

Kunz also blamed lawsuits for the cost increases. “These can never be fully known in advance going into any type of major project like this that crosses hundreds of miles of properties.”

He added that California should use more pre-fab structures and giant cranes to move them into place more quickly, which also helps keep costs down and construction timelines speedier in China. China has smashed all records for construction, building or upgrading over 12,000 miles of track in just the past decade. Kunz said that China builds HSR faster and more cheaply in part because projects are fully funded from the start, rather than depending on revenue streams that come and go with political shifts.

In the meantime, if the connection between the Central Valley and San Jose (shown in light blue in the above map) is significantly delayed, it will be possible for Amtrak to use the Central Valley spine for its San Joaquin trains, which could travel much faster on the HSR tracks. The San Joaquin trains currently run at a top speed of about 80 mph from Oakland and Sacramento to Bakersfield, but the locomotives are capable of 125 mph. Amtrak’s trains are currently limited by regulations, sharp curves, and slow freight trains that share the tracks.

The San Joaquin River Viaduct for California HSR, under construction. Photo: Wikimedia commons
The San Joaquin River Viaduct for California HSR, under construction. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Either way, it’s incredibly frustrating that mega projects in California–and throughout the U.S.–seem to almost inevitably run into big delays and cost overruns. This includes highways, airports, transit projects and, of course, bridges and tunnels.

The New York Times recently did a long feature about transit construction overruns in New York, pointing out that the Second Avenue Subway cost $2.5 billion a mile while the comparable Line 14 extension in Paris is “on track to cost $450 million a mile.” It’s a great, well-researched and comprehensive feature. It’s just a shame that when highways have cost overruns, as Streetsblog USA pointed out, the press seems to all but ignore it. They do happen, sometimes to the extreme; there isn’t a petroleum-backed industry cadre of “think tanks” endlessly highlighting it the way they do for transit and intercity rail. For more on media bias with transportation projects, check out Streetsblog California.

Either way, let’s hope as part of the audit, California will take a hard look at the HSR project’s finances and will determine what can be learned from China, France and other countries about building major projects more efficiently.

The CaHSRA, meanwhile, has selected a new Chief Executive Officer, Brian P. Kelly, to lead the organization. He’s starting on February 1. Previously, Kelly served as Secretary of the California State Transportation Agency, which has an $18 billion budget. In an interview in The New York Times, Kelly said that in “…23 years of doing transportation policy in California I have never seen a single project that would have such a transformative impact as this one.” In that interview, he also declined to commit to the previous timeline for opening service to the Bay Area.

The authority also announced that it has signed a contract with DB Engineering & Consulting USA, a subsidiary of Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s rail operator. The idea is to start planning for train operations as the project continues construction. “This firm will assist the high-speed rail program in designing, developing and procuring the commercial aspects of the high-speed rail passenger train operations,” writes the CaHSRA about the deal. Deutsche Bahn runs a massive network of high-speed trains profitably in Germany and has helped other nations around the world to design and operate fast rail systems, many of which are obliterating short-haul airline routes between major cities.

  • DrunkEngineer

    Board chair Dan Richard needs to resign. The cost overrun was known over a year ago by everyone. Instead of acknowledging/fixing it, he lies to the public, lies to the press, etc. The agency won’t regain credibility until he is gone.

  • Gerhard W. Mayer

    Thank you. I wish the darn thing could just be done already so we could ride it and ask ourselves how we have not built this any sooner. Really, all these complainers about cost need to just sh%&t up and allow California to join the developed world already. Sigh!

  • Ethan

    Would you buy a house in California for $1,000,000? How about that same house for $5,000,000 or $10,000,000? You’d have to consider how much the house is actually worth and how valuable it is to you. You don’t spend that much money without being able to answer those questions. Just because the rest of the world has trains that lose money and require public subsidies on ~95% of the lines doesn’t mean CA can justify losing money on it’s own train. The ridership projections for CAHSR have been overestimated because they don’t model the effects of changing technology.

  • We are the developed world. Sadly, our infrastructure lags other developed nations, mainly because of politics and general stupidity. However, that doesn’t mean that HSR is a worthwhile project to build just because France and China have amazing systems in place. Knee jerk responses don’t change how the country views transit infrastructure projects or solve long-term problems. Yes, it would be great to go from SF to LA in 2.5 hours. What’s not great is that it would still take me an 45 min to an hour to get to the train station in SF on Muni, assuming that HSR actually runs all the way to downtown SF.

  • Still completely floors me that in spite of tens of billions of dollars invested in this huge infrastructure project, there will still be ZERO direct connection between SF and Sacto. As high cost of living continues to drive more people to live along the traffic choked 80 corridor there are no plans to get these folks off the roads and on to transit.

  • Gerhard W. Mayer

    I agree with you that proper oversight is required and should be exercised. BUT large projects all have a certain amount of loss due to political lobbying, corruption, etc… most of all road projects, which have been a mechanism of extracting undue amounts of money for a long time. I also disagree with you on your opinion that trains loose money and require public subsidies. This is a slanted view that does not take into account how many subsidies are embedded for the oil and car industry to finance our way of life, how you value the enormous amounts of land we are throwing away for our road infrastructure, and how you are pricing the consequences of the disastrous car-only system we have devised. No matter how much that train will cost, and how corrupt it’s construction will be – it will still be many times more efficient than what we are doing now. You should travel a bit before you talk and see what we are missing.

  • Kieran

    Ya know you have a point..The only way I see high speed rail directly connecting San Francisco and Sac is through a 2nd transbay tube that it’d share with Amtrak and Caltrain(Bart could use an upper level while the standard gauge trains use the lower level, along with Amtrak being electrified alongside Caltrain).

    It’d basically use the Capital Corridor Amtrak right of way to connect San Francisco with Sac, stopping in Oldtown Sacramento at the Amtrak station there, where it’d also connect with the Sac-So Cal branch of the high speed rail line(assuming it eventually gets built, of course).

    It’s really sad in that this high speed rail line should be years ahead in progress by now but since this is America that’s behind this project, it’ll take much longer than it needs to in construction duration..I wish that Russian/Japanese/Chinese contractors would take over this project so that it’d get done a lot faster, far as construction goes, at this point..

    Hell, the DTX tunnel between the current Caltrain terminal at 4th/King to the new Transbay Terminal(keep in mind said tunnel isn’t even 2 miles long!) hasn’t even been constructed yet, which is equally embarrassing for Bay Area transit progress(or lack thereof)

  • Gerhard W. Mayer

    We may still count as developed in California, but other US states have definitely fallen our of this definition already. And for us, we got a lot to do to get to the leading edge of the developed world, rather than the rear field. Yes we need speed up Muni, improve BART, increase our transit nets in LA… I would even have been happy if we had improved the AMTRAK route to make it a 4 hour run between LA and SF instead of the HSR – but we are people who go for the shiny new thing (because for some reason we still think we are leading tech nation). If we get a HSR alignment going and it is cool, then it will be easier to create all the other upgrades that are so much less sexy. What alternatives do we have – driving on even wider roads?

  • Sean

    Capitol Corridor is currently sharing its draft business plan with the public.

    Also, there is a vision, unfunded of course. It would transform the I-80 corridor for sure. Electric trains, new bridges and tunnels, etc.


  • Ethan

    Most roads and most trains require subsidies. We should allocate funding based on the most utility for the dollar. Speeding up ACE, rebuilding the Dumbarton Rail bridge, and the Downtown SF rail extension will deliver more utility for the dollar. The ridership estimates for CAHSR didn’t consider changing technology and overestimate. As a result the utility per dollar won’t be as high as proponents expect.

    Roads also deliver utility and aren’t going away. At a minimum we need them for trucks, buses, and bicycles. The average persons per vehicle is low, but can go much higher. Technology today and coming in the next several years is going to raise that average. The utility of roads and shared transit will increase, all without needing to also fund the long-distance HSR.

  • Ethan

    For a percentage of people, time-shifting demand away from peak periods by sleeping overnight in a self-driving car or luxury bus and waking up at a destination. For another percentage, keep on flying. Airlines are upgrading to larger capacity jets like the A321neo. Boeing is expected to announce the 797 which will hold about 30% more people than the 737. No need to build more runways, because the larger jets will keep up with the 30% population growth projected in CA before total population levels off. For another percentage of travelers who grow up using Uber POOL and sharing a car, sharing a long-distance autonomous vehicle that has privacy partitions will come naturally. It will have more privacy than a bus, but be almost as cheap, and almost as much convenience and comfort as a car.

  • Kieran

    Thanks for those links! A couple things that stand out to me are these proposals-Having an intermodal station at West Oakland Bart with Amtrak, along with the 3.5 mile subway that’d connect with the 19th st Bart station…Grade separation both by tunnels and bridges is long overdue in the Bay Area for certain..I’m personally for either of those routes in the long term..They’d facilitate connections beautifully and by then a 2nd Transbay Tube would be seriously studied, if not already under construction..

    It was mentioned that’d the tunnel on the Oakland side of the 2nd Transbay Tube would go under Mandela Pkwy..I imagined that it’d go under what would be a transformed(think how Octavia st transformed when the northern section of the Central Freeway was taken off)980 boulevard..I was thinking that the Tube could perhaps be bi level..With Bart at the top level while Caltrain, high speed rail and Amtrak are at the bottom with 4 tracks total for them to share(with all 3 standard gauge train lines being electrified at this point, they could use the subway tracks interchangeably), with Bart having 4 tracks as well(2 for local trains and 2 tracks for express trains).

    After serving Alameda, the tunnel would go underneath 980(which as I stated already is now torn up with the above boulevard much more balanced concerning pedestrians, bikes and autos. There’d be a station at San Pablo ave/W Grand Ave, connecting all the trains to AC Transit.

    Shortly after that, Bart would surface using an elevated route above the 980-less boulevard and take a right to head northeast and rejoin the Bart system headed toward MacArthur station. The standard gauge trains would stay in a subway, traveling underneath San Pablo ave with a subway station at San Pablo ave and 40th st/MacArthur blvd(it’d be a very large station so it could have portals at both thoroughfares). Following that it’d turn slightly left so it could surface in the Amtrak/UPRR right of way and link back up to the existing surface Amtrak trackage before serving the Emeryville station.

    Going south, the Tube would also have a stop in Jack London Square(just off of the Embarcadero West/Broadway intersection), downtown Alameda(say, at Webster/Atlantic), before snaking over to Transbay Terminal, where Bart(alongside Caltrain, Amtrak and high speed rail) would have a connecting pedestrian tunnel to the Embarcadero Bart/Muni subway station. Bart from there could possibly take Geary out to Park Presidio, then 19th down to reconnect to the main system at Daly City station(though obviously that’s wishful thinking).

  • John Murphy

    The ridership projections don’t include things like the eventual conclusion that commercial aviation is incompatible with any possibility of arresting climate change.

    Remove a couple hundred bay area to LA area flights a day and CAHSR will be plenty full.

  • John Murphy

    “Speeding up ACE” will deliver more utility for the dollar.

    What’s your engineering background and familiarity with the ACE line in order to make that statement?

    ACE runs down Niles Canyon which isn’t a very easy place to run a railroad. Recall the derailment when the hillside basically threw the train off into the creek. What level of work would have to happen to “Speed that up”? Feels to me like making a massive viaduct down the whole canyon, expensive even to just do one track let alone two.

    Then we have the section through the marshes near Alviso, where you can see a ghost town slowly sinking into the wetlands.

    Both of those areas are envrionmentally sensitive.

    Just because you can see a line on the map doesn’t mean you can do magical things with it.

  • John Murphy

    Your position would absolutely require more runways because SFO would be underwater.

  • Ethan

    Aviation as a percentage of greenhouse gases is in the single digits. Besides that, banning flights just because there’s a rail link isn’t going to happen any decade soon. HSR if completed will have to compete in the marketplace against flying and driving.

  • Ethan

    Nope, because SFO will have more fill to raise it up above the water. As long as people want to fly to New York, Tokyo, Denver, etc…, SFO will exist and provide flights. A rail link to other California cities doesn’t remove the utility of the airport to other destinations.

  • Ethan

    Speeding up ACE means a tunnel in Niles Canyon and in the

    Altamont Pass. About 8-12 miles of tunnel. HSR crossing the Pacheco Pass is about 18 miles and more expensive. The ~500,000 people in the Central Valley ACE connects to are closer to the Bay Area. That means even if the train only goes 120 mph, the travel time for riders can be comparable to HSR’s connections to more distant cities. But ACE wouldn’t need to have most of the route built up on extremely expensive concrete viaduct.

    Also importantly, 580 today gets clogged with thousands of commuters who drive because ACE isn’t good enough. Those drivers add congestion to 680 and 880 as well. Improving ACE (and a connection to BART in Livermore or an ACE spur to Pleasanton) gives them a viable alternative to driving.

    Yes Alviso is wetlands. The plan to rebuild Dumbarton Rail also goes through environmentally sensitive wetlands, but if there’s funding, it’s going to happen. The beneficial utility outweighs the downsides IMO.

  • Kevin Withers

    Complainers need to shut-up?? Your comment expresses quite nicely the sanctimony and obliviousness to reality that plagues the HSR issue. The issue of HSR “cost overruns” were in all likelihood, known in advance but discounted in order to get public voter go-ahead. Numbers were given, with authority. But now, we are supposed to accept multi-Billion dollar increases as typical? Disingenuous and fraudulent, most would say, and more sticking it to taxpayers in time-honored California tradition. This Needs To Stop. Accountability matters, and HSR has become the poster-child for un-accountability. With Jerry Brown leaving, hopefully saner minds will prevail.

  • Sluggo67

    “It’s just a shame that when highways have cost overruns, as Streetsblog USA pointed out, the press seems to all but ignore it.”

    The author is completely delusional. Ever heard of Boston’s Big Dig, Seattle’s Alaska Way viaduct, the Indiana Toll Road bankruptcy, or the ongoing toll road debacles in Sydney and Brisbane? All were/are extensively covered by the national media.

    The Bay Area and Sacramento media were (rightfully) brutal in their coverage of the Bay Bridge overruns; actually, their in-depth reporting extended to the entire seismic retrofit program. Caltrans, MTC, the contractors, and the enabling politicians were called out repeatedly for poor quality work, questionable decision-making, lack of transparency, and outright misinformation. Check out:

    Cost blow outs are unacceptable for any transportation project. Rather than making ridiculous assertions of alleged ‘media bias’, let’s thank/support the media when they take public agencies to task for poor performance.

  • crazyvag

    I present you the highway 101 widening from Menlo Park to Mountain View. If you thought it was completed 5 years ago, you’d be wrong because even though most of the work was done, a single bridge didn’t start widening until 2015. If you think highway delays are well covered, I challenge you to survey your friends to see if they know which agency messed up, how much the delay cost and who was fired over this long delay.

  • crazyvag

    A good comparison is to get a homeowner to get you a price quote for a swimming pool installation to begin in May 2018. Then ask them for confidence level that they won’t be over or under budget.

  • crazyvag

    I think we can do better. First we need to realize that Oakland lacks the equivalent of Transbay Terminal like SF to hook trains into the Central Business District. Neither Jack London or Emeryville are downtown or near mass transit.

    So we dig a tunnel connecting Emeryville and Oakland Coliseum stations that link to a new underground station below the existing 11th St BART station that replaces the far-from-downtown Jack London Square stop. This can be done independently and provides a better destination for Capitol Corridor and faster BART connection for SF destinations.

    Next, our new Caltrain/HSR Transbay tube connects to this station from the south. We now have a better ROI on our Oakland station.

    Last step or when demand and money appears, we build a HSR tunnel that forks North of the Oakland station and goes under Oakland Hills. This would surface near carquinez bridge and merge with line to Sacramento. The current Bayside route is too windy to be made fast.

  • Wishful thinking indeed. For the 17 years I’ve been in SF I’ve heard the same thing over and over, not to mention seeing one fantasy transit map after another. Don’t get me wrong…the creators of these maps are more tuned into what we needed twenty years ago versus those making the decisions to not have anything built twenty years from now. I’ve given up. It’s a lost cause at this point…more folks will be stuck in highway traffic for longer periods of time or will deal with in adequate transit.

  • zoom314

    Caltrain is working on it’s territory, not the CHSRA’s, they are separate entities.

  • zoom314

    Sorry, but No Prop1a funds are allowed for such a venture, SF to Sac? Balderdash… It’s SF to LA, Sac is part of Phase2, not Phase1, Phase2 is unfunded, and SO WHAT if CP1-4 are over budget, do you think property is cheap?

    That it can be just taken? The only way to get property for free is by force, and that is not acceptable.

    Lawyers and ED can take money if people are uncooperative and have lots of MONEY.

    Legal fighting is causing costs to go up, not construction, you have to own the land first, and some are doing what they can to make that more expensive…

    And have been for 7 years, CA has won a lot of lawsuits, and time has been wasted, cause the losers do not want to cooperate, they want HSR dead, all to save their vane interests…

  • zoom314

    The author here is guilty of conflation, SF to SJ is Caltrain Territory and budget, not the CHSRA’s Territory and budget.

  • zoom314

    Not gonna happen, this has been decided already, if you think costs are high now, just try your route, it’s political suicide.

    And it has no money under Prop1a, NONE.

  • zoom314

    HSR is not going thru Altamont Pass, the CHSRA has said so, it’s Pacheco, period, there is no Prop1a money for what you want, as the law does not allow it.

    You want it, go get your own money…

  • Ethan

    The context of this thread is “We should allocate funding based on the most utility for the dollar.”

    What Prop1A requires is irrelevant in the context of what rail projects will deliver the most utility for the dollar.

  • Kieran

    Hahah…I already know that high speed rail won’t go to Sac from San Francisco…I brought it up because I personally wish it’d also have been a part of Phase 1 instead of Phase 2. I’ve read up on the high speed rail route plan for many years now. Obviously property isn’t cheap(usually, at least) though it can still be acquired, can it not?

    Legal fighting’s part of it, though you do have a point in that a lot of people are fighting high speed rail in vain…It’ll come around at some point in the next couple decades, though like I’ve stated this project should’ve come along quicker but thanks to lawsuits among other things it’s taken way longer than it should have.

  • Kieran

    You’re right in that Oakland has no Transbay Terminal equivalent. A Caltrain/high speed rail station connecting to the 12th st BART station would be a good connection….Now, a high speed rail tunnel under the Oakland Hills, surfacing near the Carquinez Bridge could definitely be very effective.

    If anything, that, alongside added train frequency would be ideal a few decades from now.

  • zoom314

    Sorry I still can’t read minds. Right now HSR in CA needs money, which to Me is a Bond Initiative, a stand alone one at that.

    How much? To do both Phase1 and 2 completely, possibly $50-100 Billion, overkill?

    Maybe, but I’d rather be safe, than short, and Congress being in Republican control does not like spending money…

    Any extra could be spent on studying a potential Phase3, to where? From Palmdale via Victorville to Barstow then to Las Vegas NV, and roughly North from Sacramento To Redding CA.

  • Kieran

    I think with any upcoming delays, it might cost more than 100 billion $, actually..It sadly is looking to be that way in the long run…Yea, I can see a Phase 3 both being a branch to say, Redding or even Shasta, while a southern Phase 3 could definitely be a branch to Vegas. Though, there could also be a branch that travels north through western Nevada from Vegas to Reno and then west back into California and the Central Valley.

    Keep in mind I’m just stating idealistically on what I’d like to see as far as rail goes in the long run…

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Prop 1A includes a billion dollars for Caltrain. It is proper to “conflate” these projects because there were authorized by the same bill and are funded from the same bond sales.

  • Gerhard W. Mayer

    I hope not. And I am awaiting with baited breath your principled complaint against the cost overruns on the next road/freeway project.

  • crazyvag

    Caltrain is doing the heavy lifting now with the electrification work, so the focus here is segment south of San Jose. Some work will remain, of course.

  • crazyvag

    Well, it was decided that if HSR were to go to Sacramento, then only sensible place to pop out would be near Carquinez bridge, which was ruled out due to cost from phase 1 and 2.

    Building an Oakland Transbay might be justified in effort to relieve 80 and Bay Bridge traffic since there isn’t a competitive transit solution other than very roundabout BART.

  • crazyvag

    SFO will hopefully reconfigure the runways to separate them more. Our airport had three instances recently of planes nearly crashing into each other when aligned with a taxiway rather than runway. I know it’ll require some Bay fill, but I think this one we can agree to be worth it.

  • crazyvag

    The problem with opening up books to show all possible risks will just lead to more stories from LA Times about something speculative that are not yet confirmed. Double edged sword.

  • Ethan

    The last time SFO considered filling in some of the bay to separate the runways was so the airport could keep both operating in fog and rain. After a few years of public discussion and studies the idea was called off in 2001, primarily because of environmental opposition. But maybe when sea level rise causes the runways to be expanded upwards, perhaps the public will support expanding outwards as well.

  • crazyvag

    Indeed. At the time the objections were environmental and didn’t outweigh the benefits of delays that were to be mitigated with better radar and gps.

    However, the better radar and GPS hasn’t mitigated the safety issue and now sea level rise issue needs to be dealt with, so outcome might be different today.

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  • John

    Is it possible that China is able to get it done so quickly because the government does what it wants, and we’re a little too overly-democratic sometimes I think, hence all the lawsuits and delays, etc?


California's HSR project, under construction, outside of Fresno. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

Notes on New High-Speed Rail Business Plan

Extending the Caltrain electrification project from San Jose to Gilroy, finishing the 119-mile Central Valley line spine of the system for interim rail service improvements by 2022, and pushing ahead with tunnel design and engineering in the Pacheco Pass–these were just a few of the goals outlined in the California High Speed Rail Authority’s (CaHSRA) […]