Rail railroad

Published on December 8th, 2010 | by Christopher DeMorro


California’s High-Speed Rail Off to Awful Start

There are a lot of critics when it comes to high-speed rail. So what does California do? They approve the first section of HSR rail to be built without trains or electricity. This has bad idea written all over it.

California has plans for an 800-mile high-speed rail system running the length of the Golden State, and initial estimates place the cost somewhere around $45 billion (though I wouldn’t be surprised if it cost twice that by the time it is finished). Even a 800 mile journey begins with the first step, and California has been trying to find the area most receptive to the idea of a high-speed rail line. They found that place in the Central Valley, between Borden and Bakersfield, with stations to be built in Fresno and the Hanford area of Kings County. In total, the plan calls for 65 miles of track and stations at a cost of about $4 billion.

Sounds good, right? That is, until you realize that this section will be completely un-powered and un-supported until more lines are built. No trains, no maintenance facilities, just empty tracks and stations. Que?

This is a very, very bad idea. From an engineering standpoint, I guess it makes sense to lay the infrastructure first in an area receptive to HSR. But why is it they can’t put even a single train on this line, to give people a chance to try HSR out before committing a few billion bucks to it?  Build a word-of-mouth campaign from the people who get to use it regularly. Instead, it’ll be just empty tracks and stations, not exactly the best way to build support for a massive project like this.

Instead of quieting skeptics, this plan will give them more fuel for the fire. “Look at all the empty stations your tax dollars paid for!” They’ll say. Then there is the distinct possibility that politicians in either California or Washington could cut funding (this project is only possible with the Fed’s help after all). $45 billion isn’t exactly chump change, especially for a state that can’t even balance its budget. If funding gets cut after the first 54 miles are finished, well, what then? You’ve got a few billion dollars worth of HSR track that can’t even be used between a few small towns.

Come on California, you can do better than this.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle

Chris DeMorro is a writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to Hemis. You can follow his slow descent into madness at Sublime Burnout.

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About the Author

Chris DeMorro is a writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMIs. When he isn't wrenching or writing, he's running, because he's one of those crazy people who gets enjoyment from running insane distances.

  • http://Web Daniel Krause

    FYI, Amtrak will use the track to allow trains to go much faster than they do today if building the entire high-speed rail system is delayed due to funding issues. Amtrak would also utilize any new stations built.

    • http://Web Blacque Jacques Shellacque

      Huh? How do they plan on doing this? The rails for the HSR project are going to be separate from BNSF’s rails, which are what Amtrak’s San Joaquins are using now.

      • http://Web C-wil

        The plan is leave a certain amount of money to connect the new tracks to the San Jaoquin trains at one end, but only IF the money for continuing HSR north and south dries up. Otherwise, that money will be spent making the HSR line longer.

        Eventually the entire SJ line will be replaced by HSR, but when and where the current trains will attach and get a speed upgrade is still to be determined.

  • http://Web Jay Tulock

    You have got it right, Mr. DeMorro. But to help quiet the critics, Rod Diridon swears the Chowchilaa “Y” will be next built (oh boy a “Y” in the middle of nowhere to guarantee to Merced developers that the trains will go over Pacheco Pass, someday! Wow, I am quiet already), and $2 million will be spent to study stations in Merced and Bakersfield. Not built, study. Well, that should quiet the consultants who get the contracts. And Castle AFB must remain in the running as a possible maintenance site. I hear your former friends in Merced howling, Rod! You promised them them Castle would win, trains whizzing from San Jose to Merced past all the land they bought. Oh, Rod, you have failed. FAILED! And soon you will be off the board. Did not know this? I hear that train acomin, and it is comin over Altamont Pass. Ha ha.

    Jay Tulock, Vacaville

  • http://Web jimsf

    That pic isn’t even the right location. And this section is not phase one, its just a section of phase one where construction is beginning. No trains run until phase one is complete, regardless of where they begin construction.. This will also be the section that is the test track. Be patient.

  • http://Web Hunwa

    The whole thing is a bad idea. Their numbers are basically made up and their assumptions are laughable. It will cost as much or more than a southwest shuttle to lax at half the speed.

  • http://Web Carbon Buildup

    Yikes! You’re right, this is a ridiculous idea! even if they DID have trains on it, that wouldn’t be a very populated route. Why not make the effort and at LEAST build a line from, say, Sacramento to, oh, Redding? Shouldn’t be any more difficult to acquire track space in that route, and people would actually use it.

  • http://Web Jerry in CA

    Sir, you are absolutely correct until your last sentence. California cannot do better than that. Sigh.

  • http://Web gman

    This article was a little harsh. Like a previous poster said it is only one segment of phase 1. The distance between the two cities is only 33 miles and if they were to run service they have to pay for more than one train (which has yet to be designed) construct a yard to service the trains, electrify the tracks (very expensive) pay train crews which more than likely will be union (also expensive after they come to a contract) and other things which I won’t get into at the moment. But if they do build the infrastructure the state will almost certainly be forced to shell out the rest of the money to build the rest of the line ala Teddy Roosevelt and the great white fleet. It’s coming California’s in too deep.

  • http://Web Quiet Riot

    Um, no, California cannot do better than this. What you see here is the best they can do. They can, however, do far worse than this. This is California. Years of Progressive Liberalism has brought California to this point: bankrupt, overtaxed, over regulated, population fleeing to neighboring states (taking their Liberalism with them to ruin those states next the way it was done in the Northeast), and a state that is utterly ruined.
    Want to argue this with me? I submit to you
    a) What California was becoming 60 years ago.
    b) What California is becoming now.

  • http://Web Ed Nutter

    Makes perfect sense. Union jobs, a payback. No need to provide the hundreds of megawatts and the attendant nasty ol’ carbon hit or (gasp) nuclear plant that a functioning system would require. No need to contract the foreign build locomotives and rail cars that would be harder to extract graft from. What’s not to like for the typical CA legislator?

  • http://Web Andy Freeman

    > Come on California, you can do better than this.

    You must be new here.

    As bad as this may sound to a sane person, it is about as good as one can expect from California.

    This is a prime example of why CA should not be allowed to issue general revenue bonds for any purpose. Every bond should be backed solely by a specific asset (such as the infrastructure being funded) so the bondholders will have to make due with that asset when things work out as they always do.

    What? No one will loan money under those conditions for the typical CA insanity? You say that like it’s a bad thing….

    • http://Web Jim,MtnViewCA,USA

      “Come on CA, you can do better”
      “You must be new here”
      Yeah, exactly.
      Our politicians are stupider than your politicians.
      I guarantee it.

  • fiftyville

    That’s insane and stupid, which is typical of a commission appointed by politicians with the same qualifications.

    If you want real proof of concept, which means a) building though established urban areas, and b) a real test of the concept’s usefulness, how ’bout this?

    Let’s build it between San Francisco and Sacramento, with an extension up the hill to Tahoe. We’ve got a ready made customer base in all I-80 corridor commuters, and the big plus is that Sacramento has not one, but TWO ready-made ex-military airports that are terrific for air freight. Taking freight flights out of the crowded airspace over the Bay Area (SFO, Oakland, San Jose, oy!)is not a small matter, and giving the freight a fast route back via hi-speed rail makes good sense all around. Plus, if the concept is proven to work, extending the route to Tahoe would be a boon to winter sports fans, gambling fans and all the others who manage to clog I-80 year round.

    • http://Web Mike

      That’s a nice idea, but freight and high-speed passenger traffic don’t mix too well. High-speed trains take up a lot of track capacity since you cannot run trains very close to each other due to safety margins. Throwing slower trains into the mix makes things very complicated. Heavy freight trains require smaller climb gradients that are not necessary for high-speed passenger trains. Also, the optimal tilt of the track bed in curves is different for fast passenger trains and slow and heavy freight trains. Of course, you can use tilting-body passenger trains, but you’ll end up with a suboptimal track for both kinds of traffic.

      The existing very high-speed passenger systems run on completely or almost completely dedicated rail lines (French TGV, Japanese Shinkansen, Spanish AVE) where slower trains are not allowed. Shinkansen and AVE even use a different rail gauge from the rest of the railways in the country. Germany has a more mixed system where at least slower passenger trains run on parts of the high-speed network.

  • http://Web Charles Grant

    Ed nailed it. It’s payback for all the time and money the Unions spend supporting the Democrat party.

  • http://Web Name (required)Insufficiently Sensitive

    It’s just the foot in the door. Start it, you have to finish it. And the Feds neither pay all the construction costs, nor the operation/maintenance.

    But California can’t afford to finish nor operate it, let alone maintain it – it’s too far in hock to its public unions and their pension bombs.

    In a short time, these symbolic, unpowered foundations of “high-speed rail” will provide us with a new Ozymandias-formerly-known-as-Obama to remember in matchless poetry. Didn’t Shelley give it a try once?

    `My name is Obama, King of Kings:
    Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
    The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

  • http://www.chicagoboyz.net Shannon Love

    I’ve read elsewhere that the rail-line-to-no-where is being built right now because they have to start construction somewhere to maintain Federal funds from the stimulus.

    This is a textbook example of how government creates perverse incentives.

  • http://Web Milwaukee

    Thank you, California. The Governor-Elect in Wisconsin has taken a lot of heat for giving up the $820,000,000 the Feds would give us for a car-speed rail between Milwaukee and Madison. That won’t cover the cost of building, and certainly won’t cover the costs of maintenance and operations. Instead the money will go to a truly fiscally responsible state, California or Illinois, say. What is California going to do with empty track?

  • http://Web terry

    This $4 billion high speed rail project will be just as wildly successful as California’s $3 billion stem cell project.


  • http://Web Donm

    If it made financial sense, why hasn’t a robber baron capitalist built it? Oh, it doesn’t make sense.

    So why isn’t there a passenger train from Bakersfield to Los Angeles? Currently you leave Metrorail in Lancaster, and take a bus through Mojave (space port anyone?) to Bakersfield.

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  • johnporter

    Thanks for the
    post, This was exactly what I needed to see.Good list, keep up the good work

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