California High-Speed Rail is Still On

Fatuous headlines abound after Newsom's confusing State of the State speech

The HSR Cedar Viaduct in South Fresno. Photo: CAHSRA
The HSR Cedar Viaduct in South Fresno. Photo: CAHSRA

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NBC News’s headline read “Gov. Gavin Newsom slams brakes on San Francisco-to-Los Angeles bullet train.” Time Magazine had “California Scraps Plan to Build High-Speed Railroad Between Los Angeles and San Francisco.” And the notoriously biased LA Times once again managed to sow misinformation, even on this rare occasion of supporting the project, with the headline “Abandoning high-speed rail would be a mistake for California, the country and the planet.”

We agree with the sentiment of the LA Times on this one, but as we reported yesterday, Newsom didn’t say he was abandoning high-speed rail in his State of the State. He also didn’t say he was scrapping or slamming the brakes on it. In fact, he said exactly the opposite.

Newsom’s chief of staff Ann O’Leary reiterated in a follow-up to the speech:

Again, Newsom said “We’re going to make high-speed rail a reality for California.”

To an extent, the overblown headlines are Newsom’s own fault. The HSR segment of the speech was confusing, with the governor acknowledging past work on the project by his predecessors as if he were signaling a major change in direction.

From the speech:

“I have nothing but respect for Governor Brown’s and Governor Schwarzenegger’s ambitious vision. I share it. And there’s no doubt that our state’s economy and quality of life depend on improving transportation.

But let’s be real. The project, as currently planned, would cost too much and take too long. There’s been too little oversight and not enough transparency.

Right now [emphasis added], there simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to L.A. I wish there were.

Which seems to set up an announcement that he intends to kill the project. But what followed did no such thing.

As San Francisco State Senator Scott Wiener tweeted:

If we take Newsom and his chief of staff literally, environmental work and planning will continue on the full L.A. to S.F. alignment. When a friendly administration gets back into power in Washington, construction can get underway on connecting the two cities to the Central Valley spine between Bakersfield and Merced. The new House of Representatives has made it clear with its “Green New Deal” that it would fund a full California HSR system. We’ll see what happens in the 2020 election with the White House and the Senate. Meanwhile, work on the spine–seen in the lead image–continues unabated.

There are already passenger tracks between the Central Valley and the Bay Area used by Amtrak and the Altamont Commuter Express. HSR trains can slow and continue on these existing tracks (towed behind a diesel or by using off-the-shelf dual-mode technology). So greatly improved services that are high-speed some of the way and slow speed on other segments between the Central Valley and the Bay Area will be possible as a stop-gap service until the political winds change in Washington. (By the way, the aforementioned pro-HSR editorial in the LA Times also spreads the ubiquitous nonsense that the plan would result in a bullet train that “…never leaves the Central Valley, but only shuttles between Bakersfield and Merced.”) Other HSR funds are being used to help modernize transit throughout the state, such as Caltrain, which is busy electrifying.

“The Governor has called for setting a priority on getting high-speed rail operating in the only region in which we have commenced construction–the Central Valley. We are eager to meet this challenge and expand the project’s economic impact in the Central Valley. Importantly, he also reaffirmed our commitment to complete the environmental work statewide, to meet our ‘bookend’ investments in the Bay Area and Los Angeles and to pursue additional federal and private funding for future project expansion,” wrote Brian Kelly, California High-Speed Rail Authority CEO, in a statement on the address.

Of course, none of this stopped anti-HSR congressman Kevin McCarthy, who refers to Bakersfield, the city he represents, as “nowhere,” from hearing what he wanted to hear (or what his Koch/big petroleum contributors with their war on transit want him to hear).

Too bad HSR doesn’t guzzle gasoline, so McCarthy and his ilk could support massive Federal funding for it, the way they do for highways.

  • Robert S. Allen

    Generally follow I-5. Much shorter. No need for the “base tunnel” you suggest.

  • Robert S. Allen

    BART to SFO is lucrative, but extending the Blue line three stations to SFO would double the frequency at little cost and serve the public well.

  • Robert S. Allen

    Shorter, faster, few freight trains to meet. No grade crossing or trespasser incursions to delay train operations along many miles of track.

  • LazyReader

    Forking over money for extensions when BART’s primary priority is fixing it’s present infrastructure with the financial resources it has available, rather than building more infrastructure it cant afford now or in the foreseeable future. Its railcars are old and need to be replaced, that’s a billion dollars right there; There was that series of mysterious power surges disrupted trains; and the agency admitted that many of the security cameras on its trains are either fake or broken. 3 murders back to back in weekly intervals and violent crimes including stabbings and assaults happen once a week. BART
    is also the only operating railroad in the United States to use 5 foot, 6 inch gauge track. The result, being the only of it’s kind maintenance of the system is expensive and difficult, as it requires custom wheelsets, brake systems, and track maintenance vehicles.

  • Robert S. Allen

    None of this applies to simply extending the Blue line three stations to SFO on existing track, a very low-cost improvement. Especially now that BART’s new trains are coming on line.

  • Jonathan Hilts

    In South Korea, we had a high-speed rail system (the KTX) that initially operated along *mostly* high-speed tracks but used existing conventional tracks for the remainder of the way. Eventually the entire route was high-speed, but in the interim, it still had a booming business.

    Start with Merced-to-Bakersfield and build out. Maybe this is sort of a reset on the rest of the route so that land speculation that contributed to the ever-rising price tag can be brought back down to earth.

    High-speed trains are great. Japan, comparable in size to California, employs them with great effect. Unlike airplanes, you can hop on one closer to home, get off closer to where you want to go, not have to get to the station two hours earlier, and basically spend about as much time as if you were flying even though they go less than half the speed of a jet.

  • Richard Bullington

    The grades just south of Grapevine and just north of Castaic (the section where the directions are reversed) exceed 6%. While HSR trains can do considerably better than “standard” equipment, they are limited to about 3% gradient. These sections are twice that, and the canyons in which they’re built are not nearly broad enough to allow for the huge-radius curves necessary to trade distance for elevation.

    Tejon can only be used in a base tunnel configuration.

    [Edit: I realize that this is essentially what I said before, but you didn’t listen last time. You’re on probation for poor reading comprehension.]

  • Richard Bullington

    When you get dedicated lanes for all the buses it would require to replace the El in Chicago, the Red, Blue, Purple, and Orange Lines in LA, the Muni Metro, and Link in Seattle, get back to us. Otherwise you’re just another of those selfish, retrograde autoistas. You are indeed a Lazy Thinker.

  • Richard Bullington

    You can’t talk to this narcissist. Just block him.

  • Richard Bullington

    I blocked him. My “reader experience” has improved greatly.

  • Richard Bullington

    The hyperloop has serious capacity issues. Sixty thirty person pods per hour is only 1800 passengers per hour. Given the enormous speeds mooted the system would certainly need one minute separations between vehicles; humans can stand only so much gee force when braking.

    I guess you’re assuming multiple parallel tubes, but the I-5 median is only so wide.

    It’s pretty impractical, even aside from the enormous energy usage keeping such a hard vacuum in the tube.

  • Elijah

    I’m thinking more about putting the hyper loop next to 1-5 and not in the median. I do agree it would be impractical to put it in the median. I do know that the hyper loop would carry less people, but I’m not sure it will need to carry a ton of people. In Elon Musk’s Hyperloop Alpha report it says that it would cost much less than the high speed rail at 6-7.5 billion. It’s capacity being less the high speed rail would prevent the trains from being near empty and losing money. Tickets would be $20 compared with high speed rail tickets projected around $90. I’m still thinking we can make use of the high speed rail already being built and connect it with hyperloop, and it could invigorate the Central Valley economy. Who knows when the HSR will get connected to San Jose. The Hyperloop would be much less expensive to build and would be faster than an airplane in terms of getting from SF to LA. People in the Central Valley, who don’t have Southwest Airlines anywhere near them will be able to take the high speed rail to the Hyperloop station, and visit family and friends in the Bay Area or Los Angeles, or commute there on a regular basis. Many businesses will relocate to the Central Valley where land is cheaper, and there will be high paying jobs in the Central Valley itself. Don’t forget that people will be able to go from SF to La in 45 minutes, which would link those two cities economically and allow for cross pollination of ideas and businesses.

    I admit, the Hyperloop won’t be able to carry a ton of people, so maybe they could still connect the high speed rail to San Jose, so tons of people can commute to San Jose from the Central Valley, and have the Hyperloop connect to San Francisco via the bay bridge, or a new tranbay tube.

    I understand your concern about the viability of the Hyperloop. It hasn’t been done before and it’s unpredictable if it would succeed. I like the idea of trying it, and I feel like it could help California out a lot if it is successful.

  • Robert S. Allen

    No need for the “base tunnel”. Short tunnels for grades near Grapevine and Castaic.

  • LazyReader

    Chicago doesn’t have the money to replace the EL. Chicago’s elevated train’s are rapidly deteriorating. Chicago is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy anyway, so the inevitable collapse of one of it’s lines will dot the news blips sooner or later. it needs somewhere between $8 billion and $16 billion to bring it up to a “state of good repair.”

    CTA also has serious problems with its pension fund. In 2004 through 2007, it shorted payments to the pension fund by hundreds of millions of dollars a year. A 2007 report
    from the state auditor found that, between 2000 and 2007, CTA’s pension
    fund declined by $500 million while its obligations grew by $1.3
    billion. At that rate, it would have been broke by 2011, but for the
    last couple of years CTA has been restoring the fund.

    DC doesn’t have the money to repair the Metrorail. The lethal accident on the Red Line in 2009 cemented it’s horrible maintenance neglect all the while the city is pushing funds to build the 6.7 Billion dollar Silver Line.

  • Claude

    We can put an airport on every street corner.
    Trains are inferior because reason Foundation (Isn’t David Koch on the board of directors?) and the Kato Institute (wasn’t David Koch a founder?) said so. The fact that so many countries are building or expanding their high speed rail networks is proof that trains don’t work.
    The libertarian myth must be defended against all facts!

  • Claude

    Considering lateral acceleration, I wouldn’t put a hyperloop next to the freeway, either. Cough up the big bucks for all new right-of-way to make the tubes as straight as possible. Expect plenty of lawsuits from the property owners.

    This will make the hyperloop less miserable for the riders, and cut the cost of the massive walls needed to protect the tubes. At those vacuum levels, any shock could collapse the loops like a pancake full of really messy red jam.
    It also reduces the length, which saves on the many expensive sliding seals needed to deal with thermal expansion. And there will be less length to rupture, sending a shock wave at the speed of sound along the tube to pulverize the pod into a blood soaked mass of twisted shards.
    And by making the tubes shorter, it takes less time to reach a stranded pod when one breaks down, as frequently happens with human technology. In a power failure, it would be good to reach the pods before everyone suffocates. there’s no way to evacuate them in a vacuum chamber.
    Maybe we can actually make it work, despite the massive technical problems.

  • Claude

    Plus a few billion in lawsuits to unwind the contracts, plus $200 billion in highway and airport construction to replace the capacity of the train. The population keeps growing and we’re already close to max capacity.
    Oh, except for the airports. Getting tough to build one these days unless you put it way out in the middle of the wilderness and link it to the cities with high speed rail.

  • LazyReader

    Several governments in Asia have embarked on high-speed rail developments to boost economies and enhance prestige, but such high-investment projects come with considerable risks. The Tokyo to Osaka line was the only one that made money. The high-speed rail line connecting Seoul to Incheon International Airport, the main gateway to the country, was recently closed after just four years of service, having suffered considerable losses amid competition from highway buses.
    In Taiwan, a high-speed rail line based on Japan’s shinkansen technology opened in 2007. Daily ridership was expected to reach 240,000 passengers by the following year, but the figure had only risen to around 130,000 by fiscal 2014. The lack of demand led to cumulative losses of 46.6 billion New Taiwan dollars ($1.51 billion) at the end of 2014. The Taiwan government approved a rescue plan in 2015, which involved the government investing NT$30 billion into the rail operator.
    In China, a collision on a high-speed line in the port city of Wenzhou in 2011 killed 40 people, reportedly after subpar safety standards had been implemented during construction. Given China’s propensity for outputing projects in haste and ease of bribery of safety inspectors whole buildings have collapsed and it happens quite often.China is exporting high speed rail tech to third world nations to ramp up their debt to China.

    What we know about High speed rail….
    1: It’s “per mile” ridiculously expensive to build and operate and maintain.

    2: High speed rail has not reduced air travel usage or automobile usage. The passengers they took from came from the more economical low speed rail and buses.
    3: High speed rail puts countries deeply in debt. Japanese national railways was a then, profitable but state owned entity, that after decades of HSR construction went bankrupt in 1987 forcing the government to absorb the debt by bailing out the company. A major factor in Japan’s economic doldrums since then. Frances once vaulted and talked about TGV is now 45 billion in debt. Italy’s debt’s have put hold on HSR expansion. China’s massive HSR construction has accumulated 747 Billion in debt.

  • Elijah

    I’ve done some more research, and have discovered the problem of potential terrorist attacks on a Hyperloop. If one thing breaks the tube, than air leaks in. If the train doesn’t emergency brake, than everyone dies. If the train manages to emergency break, than there would have to be emergency exits so the people could get out of the tube. Would it be worth it to tunnel the whole thing? It eliminates the security risk, but it makes it a lot more expensive. In Hyperloop Alpha, the Hyperloop is on pylons, but a terrorist shooting a gun at the tube could puncture it and kill up to ~1500 people who might be in the tube at that one time. If we give up, the terrorist win. So do we tunnel? Is building far away from the freeway good enough? Elon Musk said in Hyperloop Alpha that there would be redundant power sources and vacuum pumps that would limit the impact of any single element. Would that work? I don’t know if this a lost cause or the future of transport. Let me know what you think.

  • p_chazz

    It’s the Cato Institute, named for the Roman senator. Kato is Green Hornet’s sidekick.

  • p_chazz

    Unpleasant truths.

  • p_chazz
  • p_chazz

    Hah! Look who’s talking.

  • Richard Bullington

    No. The point is that the two miles south of Grapevine and the two miles north of Castaic add roughly 1600 feet of elevation and no train can climb that steeply. Tunnels would likely make the climb straighter. You can’t do “spiral tunnels” a-la Gotthard and CP Banff with HSR; the radii of HSR curves are WAY too great.

    It might be possible to build just west of Arvin and have a long curved tunnel that enters the mountain around Cat Canyon (35.006, -118.78) and debouches somewhere around the flat section between the SR 138 interchange and Quail Lake, but that’s about 18 miles of tunnel and only solves half the problem. It cuts off the top 800 feet of the mountain but then the line would almost immediately have to go into tunnel again to descend to the level of Castaic.

    You’ve traded climbing 2000 feet on every crossing for a couple of miles of at-grade in the flat space at the top. Now if you want to connect to Las Vegas up there, then that’s a decent solution, but for LA-SF just digging a base tunnel makes a lot more sense.

  • SchroedingersDog

    What’s the carbon impact of building this? The cement alone has a substantial C02 footprint. It is durable, so it can be amortized over, say, 50 years, but it is not trivial. Each train also requires a substantial amount of power to run, more than 5 megawatts.
    Clogged roads full of one and two-occupant cars are clearly a waste, is this really the best alternative?

  • SchroedingersDog

    There’s no problem, “you just pay for it.” 😉

  • Robert S. Allen

    Make them longer. Use helpers.

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