California High Speed Rail Moving Forward

Rather than counting on outdated approaches to intercity transportation problems, California i building a High Speed Rail system for the 21st Century. Since powerful critics of the system abound, its worthwhile to understand why its needed, why it takes two decades to build and why its versatility will pay dividends to Californians and visitors alike.


According to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute’s 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard, America’s roadway congestion delay for the average person in 1982 was 18 hours, costing the nation $42 billion. In 2014, roadway congestion delay for the average person ballooned to 42 hours, costing the nation $160 billion. The growing congestion problem is most profound in California. It’s three largest metro areas rank in the National Top 10 for Roadway Delay Hours:

• Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana
• San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose
• San Diego

Without land annexation, the City of Los Angeles added 1.4 million residents from 1960-2015. Over the same timeframe, San Diego, San Francisco Bay Area and Orange County added a million residents as well. Increasing population density partially explains why their freeway congestion is worsening.

Flights between Los Angeles and San Francisco are the second busiest in America and most delayed in the country. One of every four flights are late. Los Angeles-Las Vegas flights are 9th busiest in the nation. Any delay at these airports ripples across the nation and globe.

Since most smog in California and Las Vegas is transportation-related, measures are being taken to reduce freight trucking, freight rail, airport and seaport smog. Californians are also adopting electric and hybrid-electric cars at a modest pace. Yet, California and Las Vegas still dominate the America Lung Association list of metro areas suffering the nation’s worst ozone pollution:

1: Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside
2: Visalia-Porterville
3: Bakersfield-Delano
4: Fresno-Madera
5: Sacramento-Roseville
8: Modesto-Merced
9: Las Vegas-Henderson
14: El Centro

You may be surprised to learn that the U.S. Census Bureau forecasts Central California cities to add 10 million people between 2010-2040 – population the size of Chicago metro area. Many of those Sacramento, Modesto, Fresno, Stockton, Merced, Bakersfield and Palmdale residents commute to Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco Bay metro areas. Major airlines at California’s busiest airports (LAX, SFO, SAN) no longer fly to Central California cities. Thus, highway travel between them is normally heavy today, but without mitigation, they will be gruesomely congested in the years ahead.

That scale of population increase and travel demand is why Republican and Democratic governors of California since 2000 have understood that a “No-Build Transportation Option” does not exist. Wisely, those governors solicited and received voter support to build the California High Speed Rail system now under construction. In open flat land, top speed for this system is slated for 220 mph.

The latest cost estimate from California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) is that Phase 1 (San Francisco-San Jose-Fresno-Bakersfield-Palmdale-Burbank-Los Angeles-Anaheim) will cost $64 billion. Critics say, “That’s too high. We should instead, expand freeways and airports to meet growing transportation demand.” That criticism is wrong-headed on many levels.

10-lane LA Freeway cutting through a mountain pass common to the region

10-lane I-405 Freeway cutting through Sepulveda Pass in Los Angeles

You might think adding airport runways will help. Think again because 8 of the 9 largest California airports and Las Vegas airport have no adjacent open land. Due to their existing burden of air and noise pollution, adjacent communities in Los Angeles, Orange County, San Francisco Bay, San Diego and Las Vegas metro areas reject taking more land for airport runways. Imminent Domain does not apply. Only Sacramento International Airport has open land to add a runway.

Freeway medians through Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay and San Diego metro areas have already converted to traffic lanes. Once freeway widening projects complete by 2021, there will be no easy widening projects left and communities reject double-decked freeways. Moreover, urbanized Californians have learned that freeway expansion only invites more traffic congestion, parking issues, air and noise pollution two years later.

In contrast to airport and freeway expansion, California High Speed Rail uses a large chunk of existing transit agency and freight railroad rights-of-way. Unlike 8 lane freeways plus 2 emergency shoulder lanes, HSR only requires 2 lanes plus extra land around a handful of existing train stations. Nevertheless, a big issue has been right-of-way acquisition. From 2012-17, CHSRA has only managed to purchase about 70% of the right-of-way it needs. Imagine how much longer it would take to acquire 5X more freeway rights-of-way and a lengthy 5X wider freeway tunnel through Southern California mountains.

Every HSR, Freeway or Airport alternative attracts lawsuits. Five times more land-takings for freeway expansion would generate at least 5X more lawsuits than California High Speed Rail. At best, high litigation equals delay that explodes construction costs. At worst, projects never finish, like 50 years of incomplete I-710 Freeway and incomplete State Route 2 Freeway in auto-happy Los Angeles.

Electric trains do not emit smog or greenhouse gases. The trains are lighter and high-speed tracks have smooth-welded rail for less wheel-on-track noise than freight and typical commuter trains. California is converting commuter rail trains in the HSR corridor to electric trains as well. In urban areas, sound walls around HSR track will mitigate noise the same way they mitigate noise around freeways. Those features enable the project to minimize lawsuits. And in each lawsuit thus far, judges have ruled in favor of California High Speed Rail.

Read more here:
Most of all, critics don’t want you to know the cost of their Freeway & Airport Expansion alternative versus HSR. In a report commissioned by the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA, the cost of building equivalent transportation capacity in airports and freeways, without accounting for lawsuits, is estimated to be:

$119 billion for 4,295 new lane-miles of freeway
$ 39 billion for 115 new airport gates & 4 new runways
$158 billion for Freeway & Airport Expansion
$ 64 billion for CHSR, Phase 1

In case you think CHSRA only commissioned a study in support of its own project, ask why opponents do not publish a non-biased study comparing Freeway & Airport Expansion to CHSR. The answer is, they are afraid of objective results. Hence, California’s two Build Transportation alternatives are as clear, as they are diametrically opposite:

A. Spend less taxpayer funds with some private investment for 2 track lanes for California High Speed Rail thereby, REDUCING oil consumption, freeway & airport traffic congestion, smog, and greenhouse gases with less lawsuits.


B. Spend far more taxpayer funds without private investment for another 8-lane freeway & airport expansion, thereby INCREASING oil consumption, taking of land, freeway & airport traffic congestion, smog and greenhouse gases with more lawsuits.

As California’s coal-powered electric plants switch to natural gas and biogas supplemented with wind and solar energy, HSR patronage will further decrease greenhouse gases and smog.

California has embraced rapid transit expansion in Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay Area, San Diego and Sacramento. To handle more rapid transit-to-train commuters, San Francisco Bay and Los Angeles metro areas are adding rail overpasses/underpasses, electric trains, sound walls, fencing, and new signaling to “Blended Track” to be shared between commuter rail and California High Speed Rail. New or dramatically expanded Intermodal Transportation Centers in San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles and Anaheim will host CHSR, Amtrak and commuter rail in San Jose, Los Angeles and Anaheim.

Generating over 1 million job-years along the way, California High Speed Rail System is completing multiple segments over two phases:

2015: Intermodal Transportation Center opened in Anaheim.

2018: Transbay Transportation Center opens in San Francisco.

2021: Commuter Rail-CAHSR electrification between San Francisco-San Jose.

2023: San Francisco tunnel likely begins/under construction; Los Angeles Union Station upgrade enters mid-construction.

2025: CAHSR service starts between San Jose to Bakersfield; San Jose train station upgrade complete with interchange between CAHSR-Amtrak-Caltrain-BART commuters; all Commuter Rail-CAHSR grade separations and tunnels complete or under construction in San Francisco-San Jose corridor and Burbank-LA Union Station-Anaheim corridor.

2029: Commuter Rail-CAHSR electrification between Burbank-Anaheim completes. CAHSR Phase 1 (San Francisco-San Jose-Fresno-Bakersfield-Palmdale-Burbank-Los Angeles-Anaheim) California HSR service begins to expanded Los Angeles Union Station.

2033-35: Phase 2 extensions to Sacramento, San Diego & Irvine.

When California High Speed Rail opens, millions more people will have Rapid Transit connections to Intermodal Transportation Centers, allowing them to leave cars at home. If population stayed the same, the combination of CAHSR and Rapid Transit expansion would reduce traffic congestion. Since population is growing, the combination can only prevent traffic congestion from getting worse.

Here’s an analogy. Just before the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system opened under the bay in 1974, San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge had significant traffic congestion and San Francisco had a parking space issue. If BART disappeared today, a second Bay Bridge would be needed, but traffic congestion, smog, greenhouse gases and the parking issue would be twice as bad.

California High Speed Rail Map - March 2015

California High Speed Rail Map – April 2016


California High Speed Rail looks exciting, but where is the money to pay for it? The first thing to understand about Phase 1 is that building 500 miles of overpasses, underpasses, aerials and tunneling through several mountains will cost far less per mile than a Metro subway route.

The second thing to understand is that its $64 billion price tag is based on Year Of Expenditure pegged to the Phase 1 2029 completion milestone. CHSRA President, Jeff Morales says $16 billion of inflation is factored in. Viewed another way, if all funding was committed in 2013, it would have cost $48 billion and simultaneous project construction would have shaved 4-5 years from the completion date. Since that opportunity has past, the next best case scenario is 2018. If Congress commits a larger sum of funds, taxpayers can realize billions of dollars in savings and shave 2 years off the completion date.

Trump vs. California politics have been ugly, so current federal funding prospects don’t look good. Perhaps Congress and a President will commit more funds in 2018, so the system can open in time for the August 2028 Summer Olympics hosted by Los Angeles.

Third, CHSRA is committing $10 billion from a voter-approved state HSR bond and California has already received the first $4 billion in federal funding authorized by President Obama. Freight rail companies and transit agencies in Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay metro areas own the Blended Track rights-of-way to be shared with California High Speed Rail. Between now and 2029, that permits federal, state, county and city authorities to contribute at least $5 billion in Transit funding for Blended Track in Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay metro areas.

Fourth, California is contributing billions more from its Cap & Trade Auction. Though not indicated on the map, California recently committed Cap & Trade funds to extend construction from Fresno to San Jose. That means only $35 billion of additional funding is needed to complete California HSR Phase 1.

Around the world, most 186 mph-HSR systems connecting large population corridors generate profit after 6 or 7 years or they help fund HSR system expansion. Many HSR corridors are being upgraded to 199-224 mph VHSR to transport more patrons per hour and extend routes for more patrons. Higher patronage attracts more private development on civic property. That increases taxes. As a result, private companies are bidding to run their trains on 186-224 mph routes, extend HSR/VHSR routes and help finance intermodal transportation centers.

This Public-Private Partnership is similar to airlines upgrading their wing of an airport terminal and hotel chains building hotels on airport property.

In pursuit of similar profits in California, private companies have contacted CHSRA about potential investment. But given the current GOP-led Congress hates HSR investment, they wait on the sidelines until several CHSR milestones occur. By 2023, SoulOfAmerica estimates that these milestones should be sufficient for private investors to jump in:

• San Jose-San Francisco Blended Track segment completion
• San Jose-Bakersfield segment approaches completion
• Burbank-Los Angeles-Anaheim Blended Track segment well underway
• Burbank Airport-CHSR Station construction underway

Attracting private funding not a fairy tale. We already see $7 billion of private investment in XpressWest, which is targeting Las Vegas-Victorville HSR service by 2022.

Since California HSR Phase 1 will replace at least 3 times more regional flights and single-passenger drives than XpressWest, we can estimate that private investors will contribute $12-15 billion towards California HSR Phase 1 completion. They will feel confident that $23-20 billion more will come from federal and state funding to close the CHSR gap between Bakersfield-Palmdale-Burbank.

More funds will come to close XpressWest’s Palmdale-Victorville gap because patrons also want a single-seat train ride in the Las Vegas-Victorville-Palmdale-Los Angeles corridor.

California-Nevada High Speed Rail Corridor map

California-Nevada High Speed Rail, Commuter Rail & Amtrak Corridors Map

In the last 40 years, California taxpayers have given far more than they receive from the federal government.

California has been the biggest tax donor to the federal treasury for decades. It gives far more in taxes than it receives in federal funding. On that basis alone, California deserves $25 billion more federal railroad funding. Its a matter of getting the next Congress to agree with the next President on congestion-reducing, job-creating transportation infrastructure. If Congress commits $2.5 billion/year over 10 years beginning in 2018, California HSR Phase 1 and Las Vegas-Victorville-Palmdale ExpressWest can complete in 2028 for these public benefits:

San Francisco-Los Angeles ==> 2 hours 40 minute travel time
San Francisco-Anaheim =====> 2 hours 57 minute travel time
Los Angeles-Las Vegas =====> 2 hours 50 minute travel time

If federal funding falls short of $25 billion, then Californians can stick with the California HSR 2029 Phase 1 open date.


Transporting over 6 billion passengers through earthquake country since 1964, Japan’s Shinkansen HSR system has never experienced a deadly accident due to technology or operator error. Transporting over 1 billion passengers since 1981, France’s HSR system has never experienced a deadly accident due to technology or operator error. Their technology and operational experience are transferable to California HSR and XpressWest.

In the mid-1970s, the Brussels-Paris-Lyon-Marseille corridor had 16 million people, good airports and a good intercity tollway system. That is when 186-mph (300 kph) French-Belgian HSR construction began, then opened in 1981. Today, that 19-million person corridor transports 70 million passenger rail patrons/year. The French TGV now reaches 199 mph on 4 lines. Ditto for the Paris-London Eurostar and several of Japan’s Shinkansen trains.

By world standards, any speed at 199 mph (320 kph) and above is considered Very High Speed Rail (VHSR). Existing Next-Generation high speed trains like the Zefiro, Velaro and AGV are capable of safely operating at 224 mph (360 kph). Their top speed is only limited by the speed rating of each route. As more European and Japanese routes upgrade in the next 5 years, high speed trains will run up to 199, 206, 211, 217 and 224 mph. In other words, California High Speed Rail benefits from a decade of France, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Germany and Japan VHSR experience before it enters service.

Inter-train VHSR distances are so tightly computer-controlled, that French, Belgian, Spanish and Japanese authorities can safely run up to 15 trains/hour. But like the French TGV, California High Speed Rail will initially run 6 trains/hour between 5am-Midnight with 97-98% punctuality. Maintenance of VHSR systems usually occurs between 12:30am-5am. Based on NextGen technology, California High Speed Rail System can be configured for 4,200 passengers/hour during 14 high-demand hours/day, then taper demand the other 5 hours/day to transport 24 million patrons/year.

California High Speed Rail also has versatile capacity. When patronage exceeds 31 million patrons/year, the number of train cabins to support 7,000 passengers/hour. They can switch to bi-level trains for 1,000 passengers/train X 10 trains/hour for 10,000 passengers/hour like the French TGV does today. The newest very high speed trains can increase to 14 bi-level trains/hour for 14,000 passengers/hour. This versatility helps train operators expand capacity while containing costs for attractive ticket prices, yet remain profitable.

By 2035, Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay, San Diego, Sacramento and Las Vegas metro areas will total 40 million population – twice that of Brussels-Paris-Lyon-Marseille HSR corridor. They will have comprehensive rapid transit systems collectively used by over 3 million daily patrons. Many patrons will carry-on luggage for rapid transit rides to Intermodal Transportation Centers, then conveniently transfer to California HSR or XpressWest. Those savvy travelers will experience less traffic congestion without contributing to smog, greenhouse gases and parking hassles.

For context on the larger role California High Speed Rail and XpressWest will play nationwide, read Interstate High Speed Rail Progress.



Return to HOME

Close Comments

Share Comments With Fellow Travelers:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.