California High Speed Rail Moving Forward

Rather than counting on outdated approaches to intercity transportation problems, California is building a High Speed Rail system for the 21st Century. Since powerful critics of the system abound and taxpayers are footing most of construction costs, its worthwhile to understand why its needed and the best alternative. Some consumer benefits from California High Speed Rail started in 2015. At build-out, it will be transformational 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

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 LAX, SFO or LAS airport ripples across the nation.

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: Hanford-Visalia-Porterville
3: Bakersfield-Delano
4: Fresno-Madera
5: Sacramento-Roseville
8: Modesto-Merced
9: Las Vegas-Henderson
14: El Centro

Since 1960, LA has grown to 18-million person metropolis in 2017. Over the same timeframe, populations have bloomed in the San Francisco Bay Area (7.5M), San Diego (3.5M) and Sacramento (2M) metro areas as well. Increasing population density and interregional travel without HSR service helps explains why their freeway congestion is worse that America’s Northeast. The U.S. Census Bureau forecasts Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay, San Diego, Sacramento and Las Vegas metro areas will also surpass 40 million population by 2040 — twice that of Brussels-Lille-Paris-Lyon-Marseille High Speed Rail corridor. Fewer people know that the U.S. Census Bureau forecasts California’s Central Valley (Stockton, Modesto, Merced, Fresno, Hanford-Visalia-Porterville, Bakersfield & Palmdale) to add 10 million people between 2010-2040 — a population the size of Chicago metro area. According to California HSR Authority, interregional travel is forecasted to increase to 545 million trips annually by 2040 on all modes of travel, compared to the estimated 361 million annual interregional trips Californians took in 2010.

2016 Population Density & CAHSR System Map

2016 Population Density & CAHSR System Map; (c) CAHSR Authority

Without traffic mitigation, air quality would get much worse. 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. Those governors solicited and received voter support to build the California High Speed Rail System (CAHSR) now under construction.

Many Central Valley residents commute to Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco Bay and Sacramento metro areas. Yet major airlines at California’s major airports no longer fly to Central Valley cities because its not worth the fuel & labor cost per hour. Thus, highway travel to and between the Central Valley is often heavy.


The latest cost estimate from CAHSR Authority is that Phase 1 (San Francisco-Millbrae-San Jose-Gilroy-Fresno-Hanford-Bakersfield-Palmdale-Burbank-Los Angeles-Norwalk/Fullerton-Anaheim) will cost $77 billion. As this is a mega-project with many tunneling and federal funding unknowns as yet, that number could go higher. Focusing on the most accurate number before us, critics say, “That’s too high. We should instead, expand freeways and airports to meet growing transportation demand.” That criticism is wrong on many levels.

You might think adding airport runways is an alternative. Think again because 8 of the 9 largest California airports and Las Vegas airport have no adjacent open land for expansion. Due to their existing burden of air and noise pollution, airport-adjacent communities in Los Angeles, Orange County, San Francisco Bay Area, San Diego and Las Vegas reject more land-taking for airport runways. Only Sacramento International Airport has open land to add a runway.

Most highway medians through metro areas have already converted to traffic lanes or have widening underway. Once Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay and San Diego freeway widening projects complete by 2021-23, there will be no easy highway widening projects left. Communities also reject more double-decked highways, like the I-110 Freeway through South Los Angeles or the Oakland double-deck freeway that collapsed. To create another north-south California highway to meet demand would require an 8 lane freeway with 2 emergency shoulder lanes.

That’s no solution! Most Californians have learned that freeway expansion only invites more roadway congestion, parking issues, air pollution and noise pollution two years later.

In contrast to airport and freeway expansion, CAHSR uses many existing stations and transit agency rail rights-of-way that save costs. Stations are made inviting for travelers. Note the elegant use of space in Salesforce Transit Center (above) and Anaheim Regional Intermodal Transportation Center (further below). Los Angeles, San Jose and Fresno are planning to enhance/build space-efficient, traveler-friendly CAHSR transportation centers as well. Even when new rights-of way are required for track, HSR only needs 2 lanes, plus extra land around a handful of small stations to safely “blend track” use with fast commuter rail systems. That saves cost too.

Freeways are not space-efficient, nor are they inviting places for travelers to relax. To move as many people as CAHSR would require 5X more freeway lane rights-of-way and 4X wider freeway tunnels through a couple California mountains.

In a free democracy, every HSR, Freeway or Airport alternative attracts lawsuits that inflate costs. But over five times more land-takings for a new freeway would generate far more lawsuits than CAHSR. 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-centric 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 and and less vibration than freight trains. In urban areas, sound walls around HSR track will mitigate noise the same way they mitigate noise around freeways. Fencing prevents human and animal accidents. Those features enable the project to minimize lawsuits. And in each lawsuit thus far, judges have ruled in favor of California High Speed Rail.

Here is the most compelling financial reason to fund CAHSR, rather than Freeway & Airport Expansion. In a report commissioned by the CAHSR Authority, the cost of building equivalent transportation capacity in airports and freeways is estimated to be:

$170 billion for 2300 new highway miles, 115 airport gates & 4 runways
$ 77 billion for CAHSR Phase 1

California’s two Build Transportation alternatives are as clear, as they are diametrically opposite:

A. Spend less taxpayer funds with potential for 25-33% private investment for mostly 2 track lanes for CAHSR thereby, REDUCING land-takings, 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 + shoulders freeway plus airport expansion, thereby INCREASING land-takings, oil consumption, freeway & airport traffic congestion, smog and greenhouse gases with more lawsuits.

A bonus is the ongoing transition from California’s coal-powered electric plants to natural gas, bio-gas, wind and solar energy will permit CAHSR to further decrease greenhouse gases and smog. Can you put a price tag on that in our Climate-changed world of 2035 and beyond?


California has embraced rapid transit expansion in Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay Area, San Diego and Sacramento. To handle more rapid transit-to-train transfers, San Francisco Bay and Los Angeles metro areas are adding railroad grade separations, electric trains, sound walls, fencing, and high speed signaling to “Blended Track” to be shared between commuter rail, CAHSR and Amtrak (where needed). A single railroad crossing can cause up to 45 days of stopped roadway traffic per year, which results in 1,800 tons of GHG emissions annually and frustrated drivers. Mind the reductions in roadway congestion and air pollution from building up to two hundred railroad grade separations. That’s the functional part.

The sexy part is iconic Intermodal Transportation Centers have opened in San Francisco and Anaheim, plus those in various stages of planning for Los Angeles, San Jose, Fresno and Bakersfield. CAHSR stations in Merced, Fresno and Bakersfield will also upgrade access to Central Valley’s growing population and education corridor, with wUniversity of California Merced and California State Universities at Fresno and Bakersfield as its signature campuses.

ARTIC (Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center)

ARTIC (Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center); (c) Soul Of America

CAHSR received solid federal funding in the first few years of the Obama Administration. That kickstart was the impetus for many funding and project schedule assumptions built into the early CAHSR Business Plan. Though Obama continued backing CAHSR, Congressional support has dropped off since 2011. Over 2017-18 Presidential support has also dropped off. Since state and regional governments carry a larger burden than appeared in the 2012 CAHSR Business Plan, construction segments on this mega-project timeline have extended by 1-4 years, driving project costs from $64 billion to $77 billion. Nevertheless, CAHSR funding and planning has sparked many transportation benefits at completion of each megaproject segment:

2015: Intermodal Transportation Center opened in Anaheim, providing Orange County’s centralized place to transfer between buses, commuter rail, Amtrak and in the future, CAHSR.

2018: Salesforce Transportation Center opened in San Francisco, providing a central business district center for standard buses, Greyhound, Megabus, Taxis/Uber/Lyft today and dedicated lower level platforms for Caltrain and CAHSR trains when the tunnel extension opens to Downtown San Francisco.

2022: CAHSR funds help Caltrain commuter rail electrification and Blended Track upgrades between San Francisco-San Jose for faster, more frequent, greener and quieter trains. San Jose-Gilroy electrification starts preliminary engineering.

2025/26: CAHSR, federal, other state, regional and private (likely) funds help convert San Jose Diridon Station to a superb Intermodal Transportation Center for Caltrain, BART, ACE, Light Rail, buses and bikes. More railroad grade separations complete in San Francisco-Millbrae-Palo-San Jose corridor and in Burbank-Los Angeles-Anaheim corridor, providing faster and safer commuter rail services to those metro areas.

2027: CAHSR, federal, other state and regional funds complete electrification, railroad grade separations and Downtown SF tunnel extension nears completion.

2029: Railroad grade separations, tunnels and smartphone fare integration complete in San Francisco-San Jose-Gilroy segment; 30-minute CAHSR service starts in San Francisco-Bakersfield corridor and 60-minute service in San Francisco-Merced; More railroad grade separations in Burbank-LA Union Station-Anaheim complete and Los Angeles Union Station upgrade nears completion.

2031: Railroad grade separations in Burbank-LA Union Station-Anaheim corridor complete; Los Angeles Union Station project completes, unifying Metrolink, Amtrak, Metro Rail, BRT, buses, shuttles, bike lanes, Taxis-Uber-Lyft for better Metrolink commuter rail service and preparation for CAHSR service.

2033: Burbank-Palmdale tunnel opens to complete CAHSR Phase 1 featuring stations at San Francisco-Millbrae-San Jose-Gilroy-Fresno-Hanford-Bakersfield-Palmdale-Burbank-Los Angeles-Norwalk or Fullerton-Anaheim. CAHSR doubles to 15-minute service.

2035-36: Electrified Metrolink service for faster Sylmar-Sun Valley-Burbank-Glendale-LA Union Station-Commerce-Norwalk-Buena Park-Fullerton-Anaheim corridor likely begins.

2036-37: CAHSR Phase 2 extensions to Sacramento and San Diego.

2016-18 CAHSR System Staging Map

CAHSR System Staging Map; (c) CAHSR Authority


CAHSR looks exciting, but where is the money to pay for all of it? All megaprojects are massively expensive. But several keys help us understand the publics Return On Investment. CAHSR Phase 1 is that building 520 miles of overpasses, underpasses, aerials and tunneling through several mountains will cost far less per mile than a Metro subway or Interstate Highway.

More HSR lines are opening each year worldwide. The fastest in Europe and Asia generate operating profit after 6 to 8 years on their fastest, high traffic routes. That is why several of the busiest HSR routes are being upgraded to 186-199-205-211-217 mph to transport patrons per hour and enable business patrons to reach more destinations in 3 hours or less.

As a result of those factors, private companies will bid to run their trains on 220 mph CAHSR. Some will buy land for high-rise development around stations. More will lease station retail space in large stations. This Public-Private Partnership is similar to airlines upgrading their airport terminal wing for dining & retail activity and hotel chains building hotels on airport and airport-adjacent property.

CAHSR Authority is committing $10 billion from a voter-approved state HSR bond and California has received the first $3.6 billion in from the Obama Administration. Freight rail companies and transit agencies in Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay metro areas own substantial rights-of-way. They are sharing portions of their rights-of-way for Blended Track operations that lower construction cost for CAHSR. California is contributing billions more from its Cap & Trade Auction.

Its price tag is based on Year Of Expenditure pegged to the 2033 completion date. If the next Congress & President combination commits more funds to CAHSR, savings will result and shave 1-2 years off CAHSR Phase 1 completion date. It will attract big private investors faster too. We already see $7 billion of private investment in XpressWest, which is targeting Las Vegas-Victorville HSR service by 2022-23. Since CAHSR Phase 1 will replace 3-4 times more regional flights and single-passenger drives than XpressWest, it is reasonable to estimate that private investors will eventually contribute $20 billion towards CAHSR Phase 1 completion.

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 CAHSR funding over 12-13 years. Its a matter of when Congress & President combinations agree to fix, rather than politicize surface transportation infrastructure.


CAHSR benefits from the collective HSR public engagement, design, construction and operating experience of Japan, Italy, France, Spain, Germany, Belgium, UK, Switzerland and South Korea. 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 CAHSR and XpressWest.

When French TGV opened in 1981, top speed was 168 mph. The French TGV now reaches 199 mph on 4 lines. Ditto for several HSR lines in Spain and Japan. South Korea HSR runs up to 205 mph to further shorten travel times. Existing high speed trains like the Zefiro, Velaro and AGV are certified to operating up to 224 mph (360 kph). Their top operating speed is only limited by the certified operating speed limit of each route and how much electricity each train operator is willing to consume for additional passengers.

CAHSR is designed to reach 220 mph over a couple hundred rural miles, gradually lower to 155-186 mph outside urban areas and taper to 90-110 mph within urban areas for sub-3 hour travel times. Metrorail, commuter rail, Amtrak are being upgraded or expanded in CAHSR Intermodal Transit Centers. Higher patronage attracts taxes from private development in and surrounding stations. Higher patronage attracts higher station naming rights and more station advertising revenue after CAHSR Phase 1 opens. These are key ingredients for operating profits.

In 1992, a Japanese earthquake warning system was introduced that enables automatic braking of bullet trains in case of large earthquake. In 2011, the 9.0 Earthquake shifted the ground 8 feet sideways in parts of Japan. The resultant tsunami killed hundreds of people, washed away Sendai Airport, roadways and triggered a nuclear power plant meltdown. Japanese railway engineers however, designed a resilient HSR system that prevented a single Shinkansen train in operation from derailing. After safety checks, portions of Shinkansen railway unaffected by the tsunami, returned to service only hours later. Incredibly, Shinkansen service to Sendai resumed only 6 weeks later. CAHSR Authority can hire Japanese Railway engineers to consult on earthquake resilience where needed.

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



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