Editorial

TRAIN TO NOWHERE

GARRETT WALKER

EDITOR IN CHIEF

For a bullet train, progress has been remarkably slow.

In 1996, the state legislature approved the California High-Speed Rail project. Projected to travel up to 220 miles per hour, the train would go from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 160 minutes. It would cost around $50 for a one-way trip – substantially less than other high-speed rails – and would make a greener future possible.

Only none of that ever happened.

Although it had previously promised a finished rail by 2018, the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) recently declared that “Phase 1” would not be completed until 2024. CHSRA also hiked the price per passenger up to $86; still low compared to other bullet trains, but indictive of the project’s volatility. And in some areas, the agency has acquired just 60% of the land needed for the project.

At some point, we have to admit the obvious: the California High-Speed Rail is an unmitigated failure. Given the amount already invested, that may be tough to acknowledge. But it’s absolutely true.

If the train could be finished with no further issues, then it might be viable. But CHSRA has yet to answer the toughest questions. The train still requires $15 billion to meet the estimated $64 billion cost; no one knows where that money will come from. Additionally, various elements of the plan don’t make sense  – at one stop, passengers would disembark in the middle of an almond orchard. (You read that correctly.) Because of its many challenges, the project faces staunch opposition from conservatives, farmers, and airlines alike, making any progress extremely hard-fought.

Recently, the California State Legislature unanimously voted to impose more oversight on the project; shortly after, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the measure. By tying “the train to nowhere” to his legacy, Brown has committed to a plan that is no longer feasible. And while he desperately tries to salvage the project, taxpayers are stuck footing the bill.

Proponents often point to projects in China, Japan, and France, which have been immensely successful. However, unlike those projects, the bullet train in California has to run through more difficult terrain while still offering competitive pricing. That may be difficult; analysts from Stanford and the World Bank have said that the current rate makes the train a losing proposition — it would have to generate up to twice as much to be sustainable.

Others support the train as a greener alternative to cars and planes. However, we now have access to greener, more cost-effective technology; this project is no longer the answer to our environmental concerns. Nor is it the solution to our transportation troubles. The sooner we concede that fact, the better off we’ll be.

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