California High Speed Rail’s Plan for the Future

A Q&A with Boris Lipkin, Northern California Regional Director for the California High-Speed Rail Authority

Boris Lipkin in front of a French high-speed train
Boris Lipkin in front of a French high-speed train

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The California High-Speed Rail Authority is striving to get some kind of starter service — from Silicon Valley to the San Joaquin Valley — operational by 2029, and maybe even a service that connects with Amtrak’s San Joaquins as early as 2026. The hope is that once a useful service is operational and heavily used, it will be easier to realize the completion of the entire project from Los Angeles to the Bay Area. This would follow the development pattern of BART or of the Los Angeles subway and LRT system, both of which were derided as failures during initial phases of their constructions. But once the first segments opened, and ridership started to grow, things changed. Now, of course, politicos fight to get extensions of these services to their cities.

Streetsblog sat down with Boris Lipkin, Northern California Regional Director for the California High-Speed Rail Authority, in downtown San Francisco, to ask what’s next for the country’s first and only true high-speed rail project–which will one day have trains zooming up and down the state at over 200 mph.

***

Streetsblog: Since we’re sitting a block from the Salesforce Transit Center, I gotta ask–do the cracked beams at the Center shake confidence in our state’s ability to build big projects?

Boris Lipkin:  That was managed by a separate agency, the Transbay Joint Power Authority, not the California High-Speed Rail Authority. Of course, we’re very much interested in having that be the northern terminus of our system. It’s unfortunate–after all the excitement of the opening of the terminal, to find the broken beams. But fortunately it was discovered and they are taking proactive actions. We have confidence in the engineers and that there will be a short-term and a permanent fix. It sounds like there’s a path to getting it resolved.

SB: But does it give a black eye to all big projects?

BL: With any big construction project, things come up. What’s important is we all take the lessons learned for our project. Obviously, something went wrong, but that’s not a reason not to do something–it’s a reason to do it better.

SB: Caltrain just released a statement saying it plans to triple ridership. How will high-speed rail (HSR) contribute to that?

BL: Caltrain is developing a business plan that will look to a long-range service vision. They’ve announced what an unconstrained corridor would look like. It’s exciting for us and for them, since we’ve both committed that the corridor will have a blended system with Caltrain and HSR. As someone who uses the corridor daily and plans for our service on the corridor too, it’s exciting to see the agency looking at this long-range vision.

SB: Have you ridden HSR in other countries? What’s your favorite?

BL: Yes. I think my favorite is probably the Thalys–the train that runs between Paris and Belgium.

SB: How does it compare to flying?

BL: It’s about the seamlessness of the travel. HSR, the European ones I’ve ridden, provide a smooth ride–you connect places that once seemed far apart in just a couple of hours, such as Paris to Brussels. Now people can do it as a commute, or a day trip. That seems crazy to us when you look at what it takes to get around California, but that’s what these systems can bring. Also, in Europe and Asia, you see transit integration around the HSR lines. They serve the downtowns directly and then it’s easy–you get on a tram, the regional rail, or you take the metro or the bus to get where you’re going.

SB: Right, and the transfers are usually easy, timed, and on the same ticket even.

BL: You ride these systems and you’re like, yeah, of course we should do this in California. We’ve already made and are making the local investments in transit. Look at the stations we’re talking about for HSR in Northern California: Millbrae on Caltrain, Diridon in San Jose, Transbay in San Francisco. At each of these stations, you have different modes coming together, adding to a statewide system to really expand the reach so you can get to anywhere in the state.

SB: But that’s got to be paid for. The 2018 business plan is up to $77.3 billion, up from $64 billion in 2016. Why? And will we have enough money to get a minimum operating segment so trains can start running?

BL: We call that the Valley to Valley line (Silicon Valley to the Central Valley). In the 2018 business plan, we did more accounting for risks coming down the line, we pushed out some of the dates. But with a project this big, you push a completion date by a year, and that’s measured in the billions.

Image: CAHSRA
Image: CAHSRA

SB: But why is it taking longer? In fact, why is it taking so long, period? If California were a province in China, we’d have an entire HSR network by now. What are they doing right that we’re doing wrong?

BL: Well, I don’t know if it’s doing it right versus doing it wrong. They have a very different system where the central government comes in and says ‘we’re going to do this,’ and cities all fall in line. That’s not our system. What we’ve been doing and what we’ve done is minimize the impacts and avoid sensitive populations and areas. The other part of this is China has made massive investments in rail. That’s not true in the U.S. California is leading the charge, but China has a very different focus. In fact, our program has never been fully funded. With Prop. 1A, the voters gave us a fifth of the cost at the time and told us to find additional funding. We’ve gone out and done that. Now we’re at about one-third of the funding we need for the entire phase one of the system.

SB: Meaning Los Angeles to San Francisco?

BL. Right. And we continue to explore how to build that. In the [2018] plan we focus on what we can do with the resources at hand. But we’re also planning for what we can do next.

SB: And your priority is?

BL: Our key objective is to get something into service as soon as possible; that is critical for the rest of the program. But we’re also focusing on making concurrent investments in places that will become part of the program, that provide immediate benefits. There are key projects  at LA Union Station in the south, Caltrain electrification up here, and getting ourselves to be shovel ready–getting through the environmental process, making route selections, finishing preliminary engineering, and getting set up for future funding opportunities.

SB: So you’re ready when–and if–things change in Washington?

BL: Right, so we can expand beyond what we have the funds for right now.

SB: But you also want to get something running?

BL: That’s why we introduced the concept of phasing in a Valley-to-Valley line, so we’re building segments and asking how do we make use of it now.

Bridging the Fresno River. This is just one of several locations where work is under way on the California High-Speed Rail project. Photo: CaHSR Authority
Bridging the Fresno River. This is just one of several locations where work is under way on the California High-Speed Rail project. Photo: CAHSR Authority

SB: Right, so you help Caltrain run to Gilroy, you help Amtrak go much faster from Madera to Bakersfield on your tracks, and then you phase in more and more until there’s a train from San Francisco directly to the Central Valley, then on to L.A., etc.

BL: This is how megaprojects get done. You look at how those pieces come together over time. Can we extend Caltrain electrification to Gilroy? Then we focus on the Pacheco Pass.

SB: So you’re starting planning for Pacheco?

BL: We’re doing geo-technical analysis and looking at the soil underneath Pacheco, for the major tunnel that we have to build. We have to understand what’s under the ground so engineers and designers can look for the best way to build those tunnels. In 2019 we will hold a tunnel symposium to bring in experts from around the world and have them give us additional thoughts.

SB: So you’ll be bringing in engineers from China, Spain, Japan?

BL: (Nodding) Still working on the lineup.

SB: And you’re already talking with train operators to run those first segments?

BL: Yes, we’re already doing early work with Deutsche Bahn.

SB: The operator of Germany’s trains. It’s kind of ironic that even Germany’s conventional trains make our trains look ridiculously unreliable and slow. Caltrain will be the first system in California to start resembling a typical train in Europe. Do you think modernizing Caltrain will have an effect on public opinion when people see what that looks like?

BL: The more that people will actually be able to see and touch and experience modern trains, it will change how people perceive it; that will have an effect on people of “oh, here’s what it’s like,” and the controversy will start to shift. Look at BART–it was hugely controversial when it was built, but now we know the Bay Area would have been crazy not to build BART. You’ll have that same reaction. When the state sees modern, sleek electric trains and HSR in California…well, there’s a big reason the governor and the legislature signed up and pushed this project. The end prize will be worth the effort.

SB: I’ve heard people say that HSR isn’t safe in Earthquakes, which is kind of odd, considering how well the Japanese Shinkansen trains did in 2011–the biggest earthquake in Japan’s history.

BL: HSR has been built in Japan and other seismically active places, so this is nothing new for rail systems to be able to run in earthquake country. We’re taking a lesson from the Japanese experience; they have an earthquake early warning system. And in 2011, all the Shinkansens came to a stop and there was no major incident from the earthquake.

SB: Well, not with the trains anyway. In fact, riding a bullet train turned out to be one of the safest places to be.

BL: Right. And that was a major major earthquake, unlike anything we’ve ever had here.

SB: So why is it that the media, and so many of the people in California, are willing to overlook, or at least tolerate, delays in highway expansions and things such as the Oakland Bay Bridge, but there’s talk of killing California High-Speed Rail? Why does this state have such a double standard?

BL: That is the critical challenge. We don’t look to trains for intercity travel the way people do in other places. We’ve grown accustomed that you’re just going to drive, or you might fly for a longer distance, partially because our existing intercity train lines run on freight tracks and you can’t get any speed. We’re trying to leap forward to high-speed lines, where you’ll really start to see what a good rail service feels like.

SB: And how do we get people to experience that now, short of flying them all overseas?

BL: There’s a video of someone riding a high-speed rail in China and balancing a coin at 180 mph–and it stays there. And then someone puts up a Chapstick on Amtrak and it falls right over. That’s the quality of service that distinguishes what rail is here and what it can be. A trip now from Fresno to San Jose is like a three- or four-hour drive–on HSR that’s an hour trip. That changes what it means to have a business partner or a relative in another part of the state or in another city.

SB: So if things do change in D.C., and the Feds cancel a few F-35 fighter jets and write you a check for fifty or sixty billion, how long would it take to build the entire HSR system?

BL: If funding was there, 2033 is when the phase 1 could be completed–that’s a realistic time frame for developing the entire SF-to-LA and Anaheim route. We have fifteen years of work to do.

SB: And what’s the longest? What’s the worst case scenario for when someone can take a train from here to L.A. in two hours and forty minutes?

BL: We don’t control the funding. The program isn’t fully funded and never has been, so I don’t have a worst case–it all depends on the timing of funding.

SB: That doesn’t sound reassuring. I’m ready for a trip to the bar car… wait, there will be a bar car? Whenever the train starts running, I think we’re going to need to have a drink.

BL: That’s up to the train operator to decide, but I certainly hope so.

Boris Lipkin at an office in S.F. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
Boris Lipkin at an office in S.F. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
  • Fool

    No mention of Texas or Florida?

    “Also, in Europe and Asia, you see transit integration around the HSR lines. They serve the downtowns directly and then it’s easy–you get on a tram, the regional rail, or you take the metro or the bus to get where you’re going.”

    Very rarely. Most HSR lines terminate at the city periphery, the city later grew up to and around the station. Penn station, Gare Du Nord, St. Pancras…

    Even in China the system was built with periphery stations.

    Just as an aside, the Chinese system uses fare gates and does not have conductors.

  • Kevin Withers

    On a wing and a prayer…

    “The hope is that once a useful service is operational and heavily used, it will be easier to realize the completion”

    With a new governor coming in, and fiscal problems ahead for the state, HSR future remains extremely questionable.

  • Daisy Executive Limousine LLC

    The authority announced late last week that the final supplemental EIR is now available. It represents a “comprehensive project-level review of the southern part of the section that runs between Poplar Avenue in Shafter and a station location in downtown Bakersfield,” authority officials said in a press release.

    The EIR evaluates the locally generated alternative, which extends from Shafter east toward State Route 99 and the existing Union Pacific Railroad tracks, then southward into Bakersfield, ending at a station location on F Street in downtown Bakersfield.

    The document then compares the locally generated alternative to the alignment in the area previously studied in 2014. http://www.daisylimo.com

  • Matt Johnson

    With the limited funding available, I think it would have made more sense to start by bridging the existing gap between Bakersfield and Los Angeles, rather than building a route parallel to the existing San Joaquin route between Fresno and Bakersfield in the hope that it would eventually force the ends to be connected to form a useful rail link.

  • Mike

    The 4th/King station is hardly on the perimeter of the city too, especially with the amount of growth happening in the South of Market.

  • crazyvag

    Florida is only 79mph today and eventually will get 110mph, so not technically HSR, and I can see it being left out. If you’re gonna include it, then let’s also mention 110mph St. Louis Chicago route which is nearly complete.

  • crazyvag

    That definitely has been suggested before. One benefit not mentioned is that the current route under construction better creates phases within the current Phase 1. We now have the following:
    1) SF – SJ – in progress
    2) SJ – Merced
    3) Merced – Bakersfield – in progress
    4) Bakersfield – Palmdale
    5) Palmdale – LA
    6) Palmdale – Las Vegas – in planning

    This effectively breaks up the HSR project into 6 smaller projects which can be planned, built and funded independently. It also provides greater political motivation in the respective regions to close the gaps. Not much different to how the highway system was built.

  • Fool

    I was more considering construction costs, timelines and decisions.

    But fair enough.

  • Roger R.

    Neither are Penn station, Gare Du Nord, St. Pancras, or any other of the main HSR stations in the world I’m familiar with. St. Pancras, in fact, is at Kings Cross–as close as one can get to a geographical center of London.

  • Mike

    So is it worth it to spend another few billion to get to the new Transbay Terminal?

  • LazyReader

    At it’s rate of construction and level of finances, California High Speed Rail has no future. Advocates of high-speed rail keep telling us that the U.S. is behind the curve, because other countries have already built hundreds or thousands of miles of high-speed tracks. A better way to look at it is that the U.S. has largely avoided making the costly mistake of pumping taxpayer money into costly boondoggles. California HSR costs over 82 million per mile and over 100-200 million per mile in rough terrain and things such as overpasses/underpasses, bridges and tunneling through mountains. When you lie about money in the private sector, it’s called fraud;
    when you lie about money in the public sector, it’s called “public policy.” California’s bullet train is a perfect example of this.
    Early on, planners warned that the cost would be more than $100 billion. But Jerry Brown didn’t like that estimate. The original promise, made in a proposition voted on in 2008, called for
    the thing to cost just $37
    billion and to be finished by 2020. It was to go 220 miles per, get from LA to SF in 2 1/2 hours. Then that pesky physics and money got in the way. The projects costs soared from 25 billion in 2000 when the idea was conceived to 37 to 65 to 100 Billion so they downscaled and used existing refurbished track not meant for HSR to bring the costs down to 60 billion and ever then costs continued to soar. Only 6,132 passengers a day take flights from Los
    Angeles to San Francisco and there are lots of plan-ahead fares as low
    as $25-60 The idea that the trains, will
    carry 50,100 thousand passengers a day is a total fantasy with no basis in any statistical reality. Even the initial 119-mile phase in the state’s Central Valley won’t be
    finished until 2022 and the price for that rose from 6 billion to 10.6 Billion, a 70% increase… on
    flat land in the middle of nowhere. If they cant control cost overruns for construction in the boondocks, you’re probably gonna expect 100-300% cost overruns when construction progresses in the urban areas. Not to mention building the huge array of bridges and tunnels in fault zones.

  • LazyReader

    This is all part of Gov. Brown’s lasting political monument to himself. Apparently
    working off some kind of competition with his late father, the former Gov. Pat Brown, who successfully built much of the state’s water
    infrastructure and its freeways. The difference was Jerry’s dad built stuff people actually needed. Where as Jerry’s lasting monument is one of total fraud. And when this project fails, it will serve as his ultimate political legacy. A legacy of waste, ego-driven public policy, one upping daddy narcissism, and refusal to recognize basic fiscal reality. It might even bankrupt the state, which is already technically insolvent
    due to its outlandishly enormous pension obligations and plans for a “single-payer” health care program that dwarfs the rail project in size. But don’t worry: The Democrats in this one-party state will find a scapegoat, as they always have, when the bills come due. They’ll blame the Republicans.

  • RedMercury

    If California were a province in China, we’d have an entire HSR network by now. What are they doing right that we’re doing wrong?

    They don’t care about the rights of their citizens. We do. You can get a lot more done if you don’t have to worry about the rights of people.

    Which is fine, I suppose, as long as you’re not one of those people.

  • crazyvag

    Consider that any citizen can file a lawsuit against the authority. If the lawsuit causes a year delay which adds another billion to costs, there’s really no punishment for saddling taxpayers with extra costs.

  • kevd

    Londoners tend to think of Charing Cross as the most central point in the city, the way New Yorkers think of Times Square or Moscovites think of Red Square. Which in all cases are a few subway stops from the main stations- and those stations are well within the “central” portion of those respective cities, even if some were at the edge 100 plus years ago when they were built.

  • kevd

    Is your argument that the Gare du Nord and St. Pancras at the periphery of Paris and London? They’re definitely in the central parts of those cities.

  • Fool

    When constructed they were.

  • kevd

    sure. and they’re currently served by HSR services, even if the HSR lines connect to normal speed lines the get the last few miles into the city. Obviously the HSR lines were built much more recently.

  • And most of the nuisance lawsuits coming from opponents who then complain about delays and escalating costs.

    It folks hate the High-Speed Rail project’s cost and delays, the thing to do would be get out of the way.

  • burnabybob

    I’m not clear why they don’t start the San Diego to Los Angeles section first. Or even San Bernardino to LA. If they want to get it operating as soon as possible, why not start in Southern California? That would give them a working model that would showcase the benefits of HSR.

  • burnabybob

    They’re also well connected to Tube and Metro stations.

  • kevd

    True.
    But, what are we debating exactly?
    I’m genuinely confused what Fool is arguing for or against.

  • crazyvag

    Good question. It’s probably because there are already 12 round trips between San Diego & LA corridor with already high ridership. SF to LA ridership is low, so it was probably felt that first segments should be ones that contribute to building tracks between LA and SF.

    As of now, we’ve got nearly 180 miles under construction which is about half- the distance.

  • qatzelok

    What “we” really care about is the rights of car companies and oil companies. That’s why “we” don’t have light rail. Because “they” make more money off of us forcing us into cars.

  • Nick

    Shut the f up already with that load of crap. I don’t have a car, nobody is forcing you to have a car. You are just a victim of your own device. In other words, nobody tricked you. You are a sheep all by yourself.

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