Notes on New High-Speed Rail Business Plan

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

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) new draft business plan, released earlier this month.

As was widely reported, the cost of the country’s only high-speed rail project is, once again, going up (high-speed rail, in this context, means 150 to over 200 mph). According to Micah Flores, CaHSRA spokesperson, the revised cost estimate in the Draft 2018 Business Plan is $77.3 billion, up from $64 billion in the 2016 Business Plan.

This means that unless additional funds can be found, the start of bullet-train service between Silicon Valley and the Central Valley will be delayed. The new plan “…assumes operations by 2033 (2029 in the 2016 Business Plan),” wrote Flores.

Why are these delays happening? The Authority started building in the Central Valley because it was supposed to be the easiest place to get bullet trains running in the short term–with its expanses of straight, open terrain, construction is less complicated and speeds can be highest. However, the Authority started construction before it had fully acquired the right of way it needed. “That helped the state secure more than $3 billion of federal funding from the Obama administration’s 2009 stimulus package,” wrote Daniel C. Vock in an article about the cost overruns in Governing Magazine.

But it also lead to costly delays, since contractors had to be paid to work around the land that wasn’t yet secured. As Streetsblog has reported previously, mega-projects around the world seem to invariable run into such problems, and are rarely on budget or on time (although rail-project overruns get uniquely hammered in the press).

Meanwhile, Brian Kelly, the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s new CEO, and the rest of the project managers and planners, have worked out ways to maximize what the state will get from the alignment of the new tracks now under construction in the Central Valley (see lead photo).

The Central Valley track segment will be readied so it can be used for high-speed train testing, but also so it can carry Amtrak’s current San Joaquin service as an interim improvement. California might even see something akin to Florida’s fast, diesel-powered Brightline trains (which are made in California and currently run in Florida) running over large swaths of the state, and hitting speeds up to 125 mph in the Central Valley, while we wait for true, 220 mph HSR service to start in 2033.

Higher-speed Trains, such as Florida's 'Brightline' trains, could run in California (under Amtrak) as the CaHSRA opens interim services. Photo: Wikipedia Commons
Higher-speed trains, such as Florida’s ‘Brightline’ trains, could run in California (under Amtrak) as the CaHSRA opens interim services. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

The CaHSRA also wants to use its funds to help Caltrain. As currently planned, Caltrain would electrify its corridor from San Jose to San Francisco, and continue to use diesels for the handful of trains that run the extra 30 miles to Gilroy.

This means Caltrain will have to continue to maintain a few diesel locomotives. The CaHSRA has to electrify to Gilroy eventually anyway, so, under the new plan, it will now work with Caltrain to fund and expand the electrification project all the way to Gilroy. Aside from allowing Caltrain to go 100 percent electric, it should also open up more housing to Bay Area workers by shortening commute times south of San Jose.

Photos of modes
Image: CaHSRA 2018 business plan

In addition, they will forge ahead with tunnel engineering and preparation for the Pacheco Pass.

It’s important to note that tangible improvements are already going on all over the state as part of California’s rail modernization project, including upgrades to Southern California’s commuter rail service, Caltrain electrification, and funds going to connecting, local transit.

A map of interim phases of CaHSR. Image: CaHSRA
A map of interim phases of CaHSR. Image: CaHSRA

For HSR supporters, the delays to the centerpiece of California’ rail modernization (the full build-out of high-speed rail between L.A. and San Francisco) are incredibly frustrating, even if it’s not unique to California’s project. One can hope that between an upcoming state audit, improved oversight, and by bringing in more state lawmakers who will continue to focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving mobility, the project will get back on track. As with BART, the Bay Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, and so many other bits of infrastructure that were once derided and called boondoggles, one day HSR will be an essential part of our transportation fabric.

  • jltulock

    “the delays to the centerpiece of California’ rail modernization”

    This is a delusional statement. These are not delays. There is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow to fund beyond Madera to Wasco and Caltrain electrification and other spending projects to benefit consultants and bring DC money to California until spent. When spent game over. High Speed Authority are deception masters pulling national money to California and the rest of the country is paying for it. There will be no more money only slow draining and very slow building via higher taxes via cap and trade. All this is to benefit unions, consulting firms and contractors on a scale never before seen.

  • Edward

    With the exception of some money for Caltrain electrification, and the Trump administration tried to stop that, the DC money has already been spent. I assume that by “there will be no more money”

    you mean federal money. I note that you refer to all these projects including the run-through project at Los Angeles Union Station as “spending projects to benefit consultants”. Well at least we know where you are coming from.

  • The bridges were hardly derided or called boondoggles. The Central Subway, on the other hand, is a boondoggle. So is HSR. Neither will be “essential parts of our transportation fabric.” Speaking of, it’s hardly a fabric…more like disparate threads of different colors and composites that are knotted and fringed rather than a tight stitch and pattern.
    I just love how the 80 corridor between SF and Sacto remains untouched by this $80B (2018 dollars) spend. How does that factor into your reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and mobility improvement when 80 is a parking lot today?

  • agvs

    You do realize Amtrak’s Capitol Corridor line runs this exact route and is one of the highest ridership lines in the country, right? I know several people who commute from the east bay to the Sacramento area this way. Imagine what your I-80 would look like if all those train riders were in cars.

    So yeah, rail is expensive to build, but it’s the only proven way to reduce congestion. There’s no room for more freeways in California’s metro areas. And even if there were, they would never match demand. The last thing we want is to repeat Houston’s mistake with their Katy Freeway expansion, which doubled the number of lanes, only to *increase* the average trip time by 15 minutes.

  • Roger R.
  • cygp2p

    “Boondoggle” is one of those words that as soon as you see it, you should feel free to skip to the next comment or article because there is obviously not going to be any value to be found.

  • cygp2p

    As a Californian, good. I’m glad we are getting federal money and spending it locally.

    Also I love this argument of “big infrastructure projects will never get finished” in a state with the CA water project and massive highway and freeways built all over the state.

  • HayBro

    Given the cost of housing in the Bay Area, connecting the Central Valley and Silicon Valley with a fast, smooth commute option with wifi along the way will mean more housing stock for people to choose from and a wider range of employment opportunities for people who currently live in the Central Valley. I think connecting SF-to-LA with fast rail makes a lot of sense in itself, but many don’t realize how important this project is for making these medium-length connections much shorter/faster. Many already make this mega-commute by car so there is definitely existing and latent demand for these connections.

  • Mike Jones

    The San Joaquin Valley (up to Stockton) has a combined population of 4 million. Even if CAHSR gets no further than Bakersfield then it will have an important role to play in the State. Should there also be a connection to Sacramento, all the better.

  • Ethan

    That doesn’t tell us if critics were 1%, 10%, 30%, 50%, or whatever percent of the populace. These days journalism has sunk to making articles whenever five or more Twitter users disagree about how a celebrity answered a question.

    It matters how widespread the criticism was of the GG Bridge to give a clear idea of the scale and scope of the viewpoint.

  • James Fujita

    The point is not how many critics there were. History still proved them wrong. Despite what conventional wisdom might tell us, fifty million Frenchmen CAN all be wrong.

  • QuestionQue

    I just love how many think routes they have personal experience traveling should have priority in a state with over 39 million people. If money is not spent on their personal needs it is a “boondoggle”.

  • HayBro

    “All this is to benefit unions, consulting firms and contractors on a scale never before seen.”

    Right – forget that just the Caltrain electrification itself will increase capacity along this hugely important commuter route by over 20%, connecting people with job centers that contribute a significant portion of the national GDP. California contributes more taxes to DC than it receives back, so it’s in DC’s best interest to keep California’s economic engine running well, which includes getting people to work and back safely and efficiently.

  • Nancy Johnson

    The reason this is a boondoggle is because they should have started with san diego to la and san Francisco to San jose. That way, when the next massive recession hits and this project is put on hold indefinitely because California is broke, at least they will have two sections connecting major cities. As of now, once the recession hits they will have a non-functioning high speed rail from Bakersfield to Madera.

  • Nancy Johnson

    What did Twitter have to say about the Golden Gate Bridge? I love when they say “people are saying” and then show a few Twitter comments from what are most likely Russian Bots.

  • Nancy Johnson

    The people who pay taxes in California that make California contribute more than it gets back are not the people who need to get to work. It’s the millionaires and billionaires who are driving Teslas or German auto machines.

  • Rick Laubscher

    As one who studies transit history, I can say it’s pretty easy to unearth quotes to support either side of a build/no build argument regarding structures that everyone now considers no-brainers. As Ethan says, it’s important for a journalist to include whether such opinions were mainstream sentiment or outliers.

  • Kevin Withers

    “while we wait for true, 220 mph HSR service to start in 2033.”

    People… this will not happen. 100% fact. But perhaps “someday”, when CA further raids our pocketbooks.

    Jerry Brown is termed out. HSR is likewise termed out. Move along to another pipe dream

  • Neil_Baker

    The project was sold to the voters with lies.
    Only 52.7% of the voters bought it.
    The CEO of HSR, Brian Kelley, has a degree in government and journalism (lies and propaganda).
    The Legislature must cancel this project as it has become ILLEGAL.

  • crazyvag

    California is running a budget surplus. That’s a far cry from broke. Can point to news sources that claim otherwise? Here’s a WSJ article that helps clarify.

  • Kevin Withers

    Ludicrous, demented comment. If anybody quits paying their debts, can they also declare a unicorn budget surplus?

    Try $1.3 Trillion in the hole.

  • crazyvag

    Including local city debt seems rather dishonest to use in an argument, doesn’t it? By your logic to, state should stop building highways anytime Fresno takes on debt? Come on, if you’re making an argument, at least provide an alternative. It’s easy to say no to everything when using debt argument.

  • crazyvag

    I just drove down Katy freeway and counted about 7 lanes in each direction while sitting in traffic. We’re visiting friends and there’s no alternative to get anywhere. I’m curious how anyone against HSR proposes to provide travel options given that California is broke.

  • Kevin Withers

    “California is running a budget surplus. ”

    A dishonest statement. Zero “surplus” with so many state employees and the need for the state to make payments to cover the gaming of state retirement rules under Gray Davis governorship.

    Cities? All the more reason for local control. Some cities are more responsible than others.

  • MonadnockMan

    Voodoo mathematics has produced by a corrupt project created by a “shit happens politician” (his words not mine) who lives in the pockets of the unions both state and private sectors. All sides get rewards because uninformed members give them monies and it is off to the races. The Authorities excuses of land grab issues are their Red Herring, wrong!

    The exact reason is simple, piss poor planning equals piss poor performance, and since day one the leadership has machinated this project into the land of are you (****** kidding me) absurdity coupled with an abundance of inadequate oversight, hence the do-overs and the overruns.

    To your reference WSJ article, maybe you failed to read the comments as well combine them to the article and it spells disaster. Also, Kevin is correct and crazyvag where is the money for the fires, the mudslides, the floods, dam repairs, basic highway repairs, etc…I just spent the surplus.

    They must stop immediately, pay the bills to date than kill the damn thing forever!

  • p_chazz

    Wait for the May Revise

  • oceanstater

    In New England we waited 30 years or so for the barely faster “Acelas” that operate now, and had the same problem with delays, higher costs, and the usual right-wing and grumbling naysayers who hate trains, cleaner transportation, and public investment. Though we are now glad the Northeast Corridor is electrified and service has improved, the negative nabobs did succeed in cancelling the North Station-South Station connect in Boston, disconnecting the region, delaying passengers, missing an opportunity to attract many more riders and adding to operating difficulties. Learn from our mistakes, ignore the naysayers, and hold up a vision of what good things are possible.

  • Richard

    The NE corridor was actually a High Speed Corridor during the tail end of the Pennsylvania Rail Road. It use to connect NYC with DC in as little as 2.5 hours. The Acela takes 3 hours today to do the same trip.

    Amtrak has been unable to invest in the NEC to increase capacity or improve speeds. They are just treading water.

    Still the train remains a very popular choice on the route.

  • Claude

    And pay twice as much to expand the freeways and airports because the population keeps growing and will need better transportation to keep the economy from grinding to a halt.

  • Claude

    They’ve already identified the funds to build form Wasco to San Jose, with arrangements being made to fund the extension into downtown Bakersfield.
    Sadly, when that section goes into operation the success will make it difficult for the libertarian right to stop further expansion, and there will also be pressure for a Cascadia route from Portland to Vancouver.
    And when people ask, “Why didn’t we have this sooner?” it will become harder for Republicans to be elected to major offices.

  • SoulOfAmerica

    Since California is adding another 10 million people between 2015-2040, do you propose another 8-lane north-south freeway that would cost 2.5 times more than CAHSR?

  • SoulOfAmerica

    Hate to burst your bubble, but misguided critics called the bridges boondoggles too.

  • Neil_Baker

    Regardless of what direction we go, I want the TRUTH even if it hurts.

  • RMarvel

    Okay, so sorry to burst the bubble of all the HSR defenders out here, but this project will be OBSOLETE by the time it ever gets completed — if it ever gets completed. The future, ladies and gentlemen is air, and specifically drone shuttles that are now being tested, and we can expect to be in widespread use by 2030. So, you could be living in San Jose and catch a drone shuttle to work in San Fran every day, and your commute will be fast and, more importantly, direct, because shuttles will be able to land at landing sites all over the city, rather than a central train terminal you have to disembark from and then find some way to get to your office. This project is nothing but a huge giveaway to unions and Diane Feinstein’s husband and plenty of other greedy millionaires that are fleecing the people. It’s diabolical, and corrupt from top to bottom.

  • RMarvel

    See my post at the top of the thread.

  • RMarvel

    You forget it is already possible to take the train via Amtrak up the coast. This train will have to live up to it’s promise of a sustained high speed in order for people to ride it, and given all the lies Democrats have told you so far (and the cost overruns), you are betting on a horse so dark, it can’t be seen at midnight.

  • Claude

    That’s right. you can take the Coast Starlight from LA to the Bay area once a day at an average route speed, including all stops, of 32mph. It takes less than 12 hours to make the trip.
    The HSR, when completed, will have an average route speed of about 120 mph, several times an hour, depending on which service you use. The locals will be slower because of more frequent stops. the international standard for HSR, by the way, is a normal top speed of 200kph (124 mph).
    You will be able to make the trip several times an hour in about 3 hours time.
    Will people ride it? Currently we have 65,000 people a day riding Caltrain, 39,000 on Metrolink and the Pacific Surfliner carried about 3 million people last year. Again, these are trains traveling at an average speed, including stops, of 32mph. So the lie that nobody in California will ride a train can be disposed of, along with the lie that blended service, such as the TGV uses, means that 200mph isn’t high speed rail.


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