Many people in the United States probably wonder why our rail network generally sucks. We’re the richest (by some measures) country on the planet, but traveling by train here would be like going back in time decades for many visitors. Japan, China, most of Europe, and even the little island of Taiwan that we’re worried for more these days, all have better rail than us.
If you look at just California, its economy alone has more people than a great many countries and would be the world’s fifth largest economy if it were its own country. But, even with California’s more left-leaning politics (compared to the US overall), they struggle mightily to build a high speed rail between two cities.
I’m just as confused as some of you are about all this.
Fortunately, a recent video at the Real Life Lore YouTube Channel goes into some detail as to why it’s like pulling teeth to get rail installed and running in California:
The effort to put in high speed rail from Los Angeles to the Bay Area (the two big population centers) started in 1996, with the creation of the California High Speed Rail Authority, so the effort has actually been going on for the better part of three decades. But, this was just the first step, where ideas would be studied and developed. There wasn’t funding yet.
Proposition 1A (The Source Of Most Problems)
The funding didn’t come until California voters approved Proposition 1A in 2008. Oddly enough, the controversial Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in the state, passed on the same ballot, along with overwhelming support for President Barack Obama. So, basically, politics is complicated, and we can’t look at things with such a simplistic lens.
Things haven’t been simple for high speed rail since then, either. Despite wide public support and what appeared to be adequate funding, things have been complicated and messy ever since.
First off, Proposition 1A was very specific. That may seem like a good thing on the surface, but it was a little too specific to deal with some of the challenges the 800-plus mile rail system would face. A voter proposition can’t later be modified by a state legislature if things go wrong, so the only way to change such voter-driven laws is to put out yet another proposition and have it pass. This is a slow and often politically-charged process that can take years when you need to make changes a lot faster to have a successful construction project.
In other words, California’s Proposition-based plan just couldn’t roll with the punches.
One problem with the Prop 1A plan was the system speed requirement. All trains were required, by law, to have an operating speed of 220 miles per hour. But, if you look at the best bullet trains in Japan or Taiwan, you’ll find that they only rarely go that speed. They usually go 30-40 MPH slower (which is still a lot faster than a car, and faster than air travel if you can avoid insane security delays). The problem isn’t that the trains can’t go that fast, as much as that it isn’t very cost effective to go that fast when you can go just a little slower for a lot cheaper.
Even worse was the travel time requirements. The trains were supposed to go from San Francisco to Los Angeles in around 2.5 hours (by law). The reality is that lower urban speeds (for safety) and lower speeds on tracks shared with freight rail, add up to the task basically being impossible. This led to a giant stack of lawsuits, as people didn’t like to see the state government not delivering what they voted to receive (among other things).
The other problem is that more people in the state wanted to be included. For political rather than practical reasons, route changes (which, for reasons pointed out above are extremely difficult to produce) ended up making the routes longer and less efficient just to add some cities and towns into the system.
The bigger problem was that they didn’t plan to start using completed segments of high speed rail to start financing the rest of it. Why? Because most of the track is going to be new rail rather than upgrades to existing passenger rail lines. This means that nobody can use the thing (and pay into it) until it’s mostly completed. That decision (something other countries were smarter about) ended up ballooning the costs.
Instead, the system is going to begin in Bakersfield and end in Merced, both cities that aren’t going to feed a lot of traffic (and money) into the project. And, this won’t even happen until 2029 (according to today’s estimates, which may slip).
On top of all this, the construction project was just terribly financially managed. Revenue and ridership estimates were poorly made (and ridiculous). The original plan, which was based on these overestimates, was to get businesses to invest in the High Speed Rail Authority, because it was going to be oh so profitable. But, it became clear pretty quickly that those numbers just weren’t good. Businesses, which looked more carefully, passed on the “opportunity.”
In fact, no outside sources of funding worked out. The funding from businesses (which was supposed to cover half of the project) never came, but they weren’t the only no-show. Federal money was supposed to cover another 25-33% of the project, but in reality, the Feds only covered 2-3% of it. This leaves the state and local governments with the bag.
Even worse, Prop 1A required that the system be financially independent, with zero subsidies, once it started running. This sounds good from a fiscal responsibility standpoint, but it’s not something any of the high speed rail systems anywhere do. Subsidies for these systems are not only the norm, but unsubsidized HSR isn’t even an exception. So, that law will have to be changed to make prices competitive with airlines so it will actually have ridership.
The HSR Authority and Prop 1A didn’t see the project as a competitor with airlines, though. Instead, they thought ridership would come from people who didn’t want to drive between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Even if taking them from cars was realistic (it’s probably not), car travel is even cheaper than airlines, especially if you’re carrying a family. That makes HSR basically unable to meet its ridership goals as originally envisioned.
One Thing Going For It: Public Support
The video wasn’t all doom and gloom, though. They did point out that the project does have a lot of public support in California. A slim majority (56%) supports it, and opposition is only 35% (the rest are unknown/undecided). The cost is going to be insane, but if they can get voters to keep supporting it, they might still work out the kinks and make it fly.
Personally, I hope they succeed. If you know me, you might think I’d be rooting against it (some of my views would be considered conservative), but I’ve lived overseas and understand the value of decent train systems. If California proves this out, even a little, we could end up with more rail projects that succeed as people pushing for those learn from the mistakes that plagued California HSR.
So, we really should all be rooting for it, even if we don’t live in California.
Featured image: a computer rendering of a California HSR train speeding through the Central Valley. Image provided by CHSRA.