California just drastically cut its plan for high-speed rail — and it's the latest example of the US failing to do what the rest of the world has already figured out

  • American trains are expensive to build and run like antiques compared with those in the rest of the world.
  • Cost overruns and a lack of political willpower mean Americans will be sitting in highway gridlock for the foreseeable future.
  • California’s slashing its ambitious plan to link San Francisco and Los Angeles is the latest example of the US falling behind.

In his State of the State address on Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California announced drastic cuts to ambitious plans for high-speed rail.

The plan for a rail stretching the roughly 380 miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles will instead focus on a corridor from Bakersfield and Merced in California’s Central Valley, well away from the state’s major population centres.

California high speed rail WikiMedia CommonsThe originally planned route.

“Let’s level about the high-speed rail,” Newsom said. “Let’s be real: The current project as planned would cost too much and, respectfully, take too long. Right now, there simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to LA. I wish there were.”

Read more:
California governor: No LA-SF high-speed train

Announced by Newsom’s immediate predecessor, a $US33 billion train connecting California’s largest cities could have been one of the country’s most ambitious infrastructure projects in history.

But outrageous costs – estimated at as high as $US77 billion in March – have turned America’s chance to compete on the world transportation stage into yet another political boondoggle.

It’s not about distance

Yes, the US is vast, but the population is anything but uniform.

The Northeast Corridor, while serving an area denser than California’s proposed high-speed-rail route, has also been plagued by cost overruns and poor service.

For example, Amtrak’s Acela, the US’s attempt at high-speed rail, has an average speed of 87 mph. As early as the beginning of the 20th century, American trains were travelling well over 100 mph on routes connecting Chicago, Los Angeles, the Northeast, and more. Now, trains outside the Northeast Corridor are limited to 79 mph and must pass dozens of at-grade road crossings that add dangerous risks.

What’s more, the main line between Boston and Washington, DC, is the only electrified portion of the track (not including some sparse portions of commuter railroad) in the United States. True high-speed rail will never be powered by diesel locomotives, and in the rest of the world it isn’t.

Additionally, modern trains have cut into air-travel market share in places like France and Japan, Henry Grabar wrote in Slate.

It all comes down to cost

Take Spain’s AVE, which connected Madrid and Barcelona a decade ago: The 386-mile (621-kilometer) route was built for €9 billion, or roughly €14.4 million per kilometer. California’s full 520-mile (837-kilometer) route was set to cost $US77 billion, or roughly $US92 million per kilometer.

It’s far from the only example of inflated construction costs.

The New York Times reported in 2017 that New York’s East Side Access project – a 3.5-mile tunnel extension designed to bring commuter trains from the Long Island suburbs into Grand Central Terminal, the country’s largest train station – was estimated to cost $US12 billion, or $US3.5 billion per new mile of track.

The Times described it as a cost overrun that put even other expensive New York projects, like the Second Avenue subway line ($US2.5 billion per mile of new track) or the 7 line extension ($US1.5 billion per mile), to shame.

What Newsom said Tuesday “wasn’t news – it was news that he said it out loud,” said Nadia Naik, of the grassroots group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design. “For Californians, it’s really sad. We knew California could be a model, and that if we screwed this up people would point and say we shouldn’t do that. All the fears have come to pass.”

The comparisons don’t have to stop at Europe, the easiest place for American rail advocates to point. Morocco constructed a high-speed rail connecting its capital, Tangier, with Rabat and Casablanca, a major business hub, for just $US2 billion.

It’s time for the US to rein in costs and catch up with the rest of the world.

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