Back to the Future?


High-speed rail is coming to California. The $68.4 billion project – most expensive public-works in U.S. history – will transport passengers at speeds up to 220 miles per hour between Los Angeles and San Francisco, making the 500-mile trip in 2 hours and 40 minutes. California voters in 2008 approved a ballot measure authorizing $9.95 billion general obligation bonds. At that time the estimated cost was $40 billion.

The trains may be high speed, but construction isn’t. The San Francisco-Los Angeles route is Phase 1 of the project, scheduled for completion in 2029. The initial section is a 130-mile route between Merced and Bakersfield, completion projected by 2019. Work began earlier this year on a 29-mile stretch between the Central Valley cities of Madera and Fresno. In 2022, the train will begin carrying passengers between Merced and Burbank, north of Los Angeles. No mention, however, of how many people in Burbank want to go to Merced. The S.F.-L.A. route is scheduled for completion in 2029.

Cahsr_map.svgPhase 2 will extend the route south to San Diego and run a spur from Merced north to Sacramento. At this time there is no financing and no schedule for Phase 2.

Not everyone is crazy about the idea. Even proponents have their criticisms. Numerous lawsuits are in the works attempting to stop the project. Citizens for California High Speed Rail Accountability (CCHSRA) is one of the better-organized groups opposing high-speed rail. Much of the opposition comes from Bakersfield, Fresno and the Central Valley, where the initial construction will take place. Construction would bring several-thousand jobs to an area where unemployment is much higher than other areas in the state. The maintenance facility, with permanent jobs, will be located in the Fresno area as well.

Probably predictable, the project is already over budget and behind schedule.

In the meantime China wants to build a high-speed train between Las Vegas and Los Angeles. China Railway International in a joint venture with XpressWest is working on plans to construct the Desert Xpress, a line connecting the two glamour capitals. Well, that is if you consider Victorville, California a glamour capital. The proposed route would run from Las Vegas to Victorville, in the desert 85 miles northeast of L.A. (Victorville lost some of its glamour a few years ago when the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum packed up and moved from there to Branson, Missouri.)

Elon Musk and his solution
Elon Musk and his solution

Elon Musk, of Tesla, SpaceX and Solar City, says he has a better idea: Hyperloop. Basically a pneumatic tube with passenger cars inside, Hyperloop, according to Musk, would be safer, faster and less expensive. (Elon Musk made his initial fortune from PayPal.)

It’s an hour-and-a-half flight between LAX and SFO. That doesn’t include getting to the airport and navigating your way through security.

Amtrak keeps chugging along
Amtrak keeps chugging along

We already do have Amtrak, operating on 21,000 miles of track to 500 destinations. It’s not always convenient and frequently behind schedule. The average speed of an Amtrak train is 48 miles per hour. The once-a-day Coast Starlight takes about twelve hours from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Except it’s to Oakland. From Oakland an Amtrak bus will take you across the bay to San Francisco. The other option is Amtrak bus to Bakersfield, train to Martinez, then another bus for the thirty-five miles to S.F.  Although ridership has increased fifty percent in the past fifteen years, performance is not likely to improve. Like all modes of transportation, Amtrak operations are subsidized. In 2004, its subsidy was $944 million; in 2014 it was down to $340 million.

A nationwide network of high-speed routes has its proponents. Would a system of high-speed rail attract ridership? That is, on the slim chance this country would commit to building such a system. We built the interstate highway system. We sent people to the moon. Assuming California’s high-speed rail is actually built, it will be fifty years before we really know if it was a good idea.

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