California moves forward on high speed rail

Lawmakers in California have approved the first phase of funding for a high speed rail line planned to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco.The approved measure allows the state to issue $4.5 billion in bonds, $2.6 billion of which will be used to start construction on a 130 mile chunk of the operation between Madera and Bakersfield. The move also allows the state to collect more than $3 billion in matching federal funding to help finance the project.


The final price tag for the run between San Francisco and Los Angeles is expected to come in around $68 billion, making this initial effort a very small chunk of the overall project. Even more bizarre is that the initial section will touch neither Los Angeles nor San Francisco, leaving it dependent on regional customers to have any revenue flow. Many regions around the world have high speed rail and nearly all of them use it to connect major metropolitan areas, not smaller towns.

I’m a big fan of high speed rail and I believe there are portions of the United States which could benefit dramatically from seeing lines constructed. I want to be incredibly excited about this announcement as a forbearer of great things to come in the world of rail travel. And by acting this week the state secures the federal matching funds. But they’re still going to have to spend a lot of their own money on the project, one which seems doomed from the start based on the ordering of the phases.

The bill also provides for improved mass transit funding around Los Angeles and San Francisco. That’s definitely a good thing. But it isn’t clear that they also needed to start the HSR construction in the middle of the state where there is going to be limited demand in order to fun that portion.

I’m quite skeptical at this point that the program will be successful. Hopeful, but skeptical. And if this one fails it has the potential to destroy what little public support there is anywhere else in the nation for such an effort. Derailing chances of true high speed rail in the northeast corridor, around Chicago or in Florida would be a huge blow.

Good luck, California. We’re all counting on you.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. I’m also surprised at where they are starting to lay tracks. I can’t imagine there’s much (any?) demand for rails in that area until the project is complete compared to (just an example) SF to Fresno. I do hope it ends up being successful, as I’d love to see a rail expansion in the US.

  2. I grew up in the Central Valley of California, and even with subsidized Amtrak train travel, people there do not use public transportation because once you get to LA or the Bay Area, you still need a car to get where you are going. That is a boondoggle as are most of these giant public works projects. I think that the figure to finish is more like $90 billion when you take into account cost overruns and inflation. It is a real waste of state and federal taxpayer’s monies.

  3. Absolutely the train to no where. Very few 40+ years olds will ever see this thing run in our lifetimes! 🙂

    They should have started the track laying from LA and SF to create a better sense of urgency. I suspect that the powers-that-be behind this know that the project will not succeed, but they get great publicity and voters this way.

  4. I’d truly like to see high-speed rail help 36 million residents move around the state of California. Every project has to start somewhere. The price only goes up the longer the delay.

    Central Valley has higher unemployment than SF Bay Area or Los Angeles County.

    1. Yes, Ric, every project has to start somewhere. Sadly, however, this one seems to be set up to start in an area where they’re virtually guaranteed no customers once they actually get the thing built. And unless all the unemployed in the Central Valley happen to be construction workers I’m not clear how this actually helps the situation.

      I disagree, ArkansasTraveler, that the issue is a need of a car once you get to LA or SF. Picking up a rental car in downtown isn’t a huge deal and especially now with fuel prices so high and making driving rather expensive that issue will be diminished. The bigger issue is that from the Central Valley to LA isn’t possible reasonably on a train. Ditto for SF. Headed south the rail line terminates in Bakersfield and you have to switch to a bus. Headed north you switch at Stockton to a bus.

      I’d love to see real HSR here in the United States. But this isn’t the way to get there.:(

  5. LA to Fresno would still have had some passengers. The track is taking a long detour btw

  6. Totally agree Seth. As someone who has enjoyed high speed rail in other countries I’ve longed for it here, but why they decided to build in this order makes me wonder if the project’s detractors will build up enough momentum simply because Americans are impatient.

    Imagine if in the 20th century we’d spent the last 7 decades dumping huge sums of federal and state spending building rail infrastructure and you could get anywhere with rail and public transit and suddenly California announced it was going to build a highway for “automobiles” in the middle of a sparsely populated area to help people get around.

    As a Portlander I’ve been clawing my eyes out waiting for high speed rail to Seattle or Vancouver BC (or dare I dream of San Fran) for over a decade, but doubt I’ll see it in my lifetime. Portland and Vancouver(wa) and Oregon and WA have been debating, planning and evaluating just a new bridge to cross the columbia river for like 4 years with jack shit to show for it, I’m doubtful the political will ever will be concurrent in two states for a project that would be so much bigger.

    It boils down to population density. We’ve built our country spread out and designed for cars. Eventually the efficiency of rail will cross into the necessity threshold at which point people will be demanding to know why ‘Murica doesn’t have speedy rail, but I think we’re still a few decades away from that.

  7. This project is nuts. No wonder California is broke. They must be trying to outdo D.C. For the idiots award in 2012

  8. For new transportation corridor projects, right of way purchases are the largest expense and environmental clearance takes many many years to obtain. With this in mind, almost all corridors begin where ROW takes are the smallest and/or cheapest and environmental issues will be minimal allowing for quicker clearance. I’m not familiar with CA to know if this is true for this project but Seth’s post seems to indicate the project is starting in a location of lowest population within corridor. This all makes sense from what it realistically takes to get a project this size (length) started and funding approved. Smaller revenue projections from this section vs others within the corridor would not necessarily have an negative impact on the success of the project. If funding commitments are programed for those higher revenue sections, this would provide a high probability of being constructed and pay back of bonds assured. Talk of boondoggles is way premature but not unexpected from Fox News viewers.

    1. If you’re lumping me in with the “Fox News viewers” in this one, RKToledo, then you clearly haven’t been reading my views very long.

      I understand that right-of-way is expensive and that it is very expensive to acquire, even with eminent domain claims. But building the first phase of the project in an area with the least demand for the project means that chances of growing it later as the value is proven is much, much harder. If the bill approved was one whereby this was simply the first stage to be funded and there was actually a plan for the other stages and a timeline and funding options then I’d feel differently. If they chose an area to start where there was a chance that the line would actually get some use before the whole thing was completed then I’d feel differently. Even with the theoretical lower revenue projections which you’ve suggested I’m not sure that there is going to be much of a chance of things getting past this stage.

      I hope I’m wrong, but California seems one of the worst places in the USA to try for HSR and this doesn’t give me a lot of hope.

  9. I will reiterate that folks say they want rail or high speed rail available but do not use it. Seth commented on my post that people in the Central Valley do not currently use Amtrak because they cannot take the train through to their final destination, and while that may be true for Los Angeles, you can take the Amtrak all the way to Oakland and switch over to the BART. I have done so in the past. Routes from LA and the Bay Area on Amtrak are heavily subsidized yet Californians do not use it. It is not a bad ride, and it takes about the same amount of time for less money. What people say they want and what they use are two different things. This will be an absolute waste of money.

    1. I’m surprised that Amtrak doesn’t offer the Oakland option versus the Stockton via bus option when searching for San Francisco to Madera. Even still, it is a slow ride at 3.5+ hours versus driving, and you still have to get across the Bay.

      If the HSR option was actually real there’s a decent chance people would use it. Europe proves that every day. But they connect real metropolitan centers at speeds which rival flying. That’s what HSR is about. California is a bad place to try, especially given the routing chosen, because the end points are too spread out with insufficient urban density in between.

      There are plenty of people who are willing and able to visit urban areas without need of a car. I do it on just about every trip I take and have for years. But it depends on connectivity to actual urban centers, not to outlying towns along the way.

  10. Seth –

    Generally I like your blog and comments but I think you’re off here. You state that…

    “But they connect real metropolitan centers at speeds which rival flying. That’s what HSR is about. California is a bad place to try, especially given the routing chosen, because the end points are too spread out with insufficient urban density in between.”

    Explain to me how CA HSR is different than the AVE in Spain (Madrid to Barcelona with little density in between, about the same distance)

    I am not thrilled that they’re starting on this leg, but any other leg would not significantly increase ridership. SF to Fresno? LA to Bakersfield? This isn’t about Central Vally ridership, this is about connecting the nodes together so arguing about central valley ridership is a red herring. It is simply starting in the place of least resistance.

    LAX to SFO, LA airports to Bay Area airports (any way you want to slice it) represent one of the busiest air corridors in the world – the passengers are there.

    As for those who argue that public projects are boondoggles, I’m looking at you @arkansas traveler, the Central Valley owes its very existence to public works.

    1. I do think that there are differences between the Spanish AVE train and the proposed solution in California related to the number of stops and population densities. But there are also differences from a cost and cultural perspective. Europeans are already used to rail travel so adding better rail makes it a natural progression more than a sea-change sort of mentality. Going from essentially nothing (1 daily, 13 hour journey) to full HSR will be too much of a shock to the system, I believe, which will work against the chances for success. In the Chicago region or in the DC-Boston corridor there are higher passenger densities and better existing adoption of rail currently making those better suited to a first try in the USA in my opinion.

      I believe that the passengers are probably there on the corridor but, unlike MAD-BCN, they are currently widely distributed. There are at least three (and possibly five) airports at the northern end and a similar number, if not more, at the southern end. These aren’t passengers looking to go from city center to city center in the same volumes that they do in Europe. Yes, Chicago, New York and Washington also have multiple airports, but they are more tightly grouped on the population centers and along the primary travel corridors IMO.

      And even if this isn’t about Central Valley ridership, having at least some demand – commuter or otherwise – would be better than the basically none that the proposed route will offer.

      This is basically a done deal so I’m hoping for the best and that it works out in the end. But from where I’m sitting this seems like a questionable way to try to prove that the HSR can work.

      I’m also not so sure that thanking public works projects for urban sprawl and significantly altering the ecological situation of the region to the negative is a great way to lobby for this being a good idea. 😉

  11. Seth –

    Looks to me like you’ve moved the goalposts. First it was about density and where the tracks are first being laid, now it is about culture and cost?

    By your argument (because we aren’t used to rail like the Europeans), we would never get used to it. It is self-defeating.

    As stated, the current solution for rail in CA (13 hours, with no stop in SF) isn’t really a benchmark to gauge acculturation.

    Look at a map of Spain, tell me what big cities exist along the way (the answer is 1 – Zaragoza) Compare to CA, doesn’t look that different does it (in fact, I would argue that it tilts in CA’s favor (thanks Fresno and Bakersfield, with no mention of SD and Sacto)

    Are Chicago, NY, etc great places for HSR, sure. The $$$ was there for the taking, and as far as I know, no one took it except CA. (I could be wrong)

    Plus, consider a more practical need for this… how else are we going to move people around a growing state? You know that SFO, SJC, LAX can’t grow to meet the demands of intra-state travel, nor is adding more lanes to I-5 a practical solution. (Save me HSR, you’re our only hope!)

    As for the last comment, it was targeted at a specific segment of the population that poo-poos large public projects while not realizing the good these bring to our day to day life. I’m off to drive on my local interstate (which by the way started in…. Kansas (or rural Missouri or central PA – depending on who you ask)

    Good talk

    1. There are plenty of places in the US which are much more accustomed to rail travel; I named a few of them. Trying in a region where there is a real chance seems a much smarter plan IMO. Just because no one went after the reasonably small amount of federal funds doesn’t mean that there isn’t a chance for HSR to work. A different view is that everyone else saw that the numbers didn’t add up and it isn’t worth throwing away a few billion when the real project will cost 10x what they can allocate.

      I agree that the current option isn’t worth comparing against in terms of adoption. But in other regions there are current options worth comparing. That one can go 450 miles (1.5x the distance in California) from Washington To Boston in only 8 hours (versus the 12+ in CA) not even on Acela is a pretty decent vote in favor of trying on the East coast. At least people here ride the trains in sufficient volume that there is frequent service at decent speeds. I can think of a few reasons why no one on the east coast made a play for the fed cash. Mostly because it isn’t enough to actually accomplish anything useful.

      Maybe I’m wrong and this is the beginning of a renaissance of rail travel on the west coast. But I’m betting against that.

  12. Rumor has it that in order to get Jim Costa to vote for ACA, they added a stipulation that federal funds could only go to the central Valley segment in the first phase.

    Wouldn’t surprise me if true.

  13. The project has to start somewhere. Agreed that the Central Valley is not the best option for a starting point, but at some point, it needs to go through the Central Valley. By starting there and building north to SF and south to LA, they have an incentive to keep building (as opposed to having something just on SF and/or just in LA, and then stopping). And truthfully, if you can get building through the more conservative inland valley area, then it makes overcoming the moneyed NIMBY-ism of the SF Peninsula seem easier, given the strong Democratic leanings of the region.

  14. I think it is also instructive to compare the CA HSR proposal with Eurostar / Eurotunnel, running between London and Paris. Whilst they are slightly closer, they faced significant engineering and tunnelling challenges, massively increasing the costs. Plus they had to run through very wealthy areas of South East England with huge environmental impact (high speed trains are staggeringly noisy).

    Costs overran massively, the original company building and operating it went bust, some strange compromises were made but it did finally happen, although the high speed route through South East England only happened a decade or two later.

    Now that the money has been sunk into it, and the original backers have lost everything, what is left? A service that is significantly more expensive than flying, but is also faster if you are going city centre to city centre, which most are. Trains that are now near the end of their lives and which need replacing, with no money to do so. But – and it’s a huge but – by far the best way of travelling between the two cities and a massively popular service.

    However, and this is where it differs from CA, it’s running between two cities with huge urban populations, far larger than SF or LA. For those living in one city and working in the other, it makes huge sense and you’d be crazy to fly. For those living outside London, for example, and going to Paris, flying remains a sensible option, and vice versa. But there are enough people who are going city centre to city centre. For me, I would assume that the costs will be sunk and the money will never be seen again, but I really wonder if the small urban population of SF and the tiny urban population of LA (as opposed to suburban populations) can support this concept. Make no mistake, people who live in suburbs will be getting in their cars. Once they are in their cars, they’ll drive to the airport, because they won’t be able to park at the station.

  15. The construction provides employment for the time being which is needed for local politicians to get reelected.

    Having said that I dont know the merits of this project much but I have witnessed massive projects (that always have cost overruns) be successful despite the costs and initial skepticism. Lets hope that be the case for HSR in CA.

  16. Using the logic from @arkansas travel, air travel between SF and LA should not exist either, since once you get to the airport you have to take a car to everywhere…

  17. I have to be on the side of those who are skeptical this is the way to start out. If this turns into a terrible money drain (and I fear it will), it will make it politically more difficult for projects to happen in other places that might have more prospects for making a go of it. Europe and Japan have the population density and a culture of using transit. China has the population and can develop the culture as more and more people have the resources to afford long distance travel. I question it here where car is king.

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