Governor Newsom has officially ended California’s main high speed rail effort, cutting the project to the small section currently under construction. It’s a sad day for those of us who are supporters of high speed rail across the US for many reasons.
The most important reason to find this announcement upsetting is that it simply had to happen. This line, as conceived, planned, and implemented was dangerously flawed. Moving forward with this as the standard of rail in the US would cripple implementation across the nation.
It’s better off dead. We’re all better off with it being dead.
Things weren’t always this dire for California’s high speed rail project. As recently as 2008, voters eagerly approved a $10 billion bond authorization for a rail system to link San Francisco and San Diego. It was expected to cost $33 billion and be completed by 2020.
The proposal was partially baked from the start, which is not necessarily a flaw. But the exact route and methods were hardly nailed down by the agency, which apparently did not call on adequate experience in the area. Costs continued to balloon and the timeline was pushed back.
What Newsom killed off was a project that might cost as much as $98 billion, no one is sure, and certainly not be finished before 2029.
If all of this sounds ridiculous, it’s actually worse. This project called for a 300 km/hr (220 mile/hr) train using highly conventional track and technology, far from anything remotely advanced or even fast. It would take well over 2.5 hours to travel from LA to SF, a flight time of 90 minutes currently. It was not exactly fast.
Isn’t there a better way to do this? The short answer is yes, and China is showing the world how to build a high speed network properly .
While it is difficult to be sure exactly what lessons from their experience apply and which do not, the comparison is very stark. In review, China has built up 25,000 km (15,000 miles) of high speed rail in 12 years, or about two-thirds of the planet’s fast track. These tracks run trains as fast as 400 km/hr (250 miles/hr) and are currently carrying over 2 billion trips per year. The cost of this total investment, in 2019 money, is about $600 billion.
Is it worth it?
There are many people who see these rail projects as a make-work program by the government simply to keep people employed and to keep growth on a fast pace. There is little doubt that articles which tout this benefit more than anything else are common, meaning that this is what officials are talking about. That may seem like a bad reason to do something, but it’s better than the People’s Liberation Army as a way to keep the population gainfully employed.
Linking up their nation is seen as the most critical way to spread the benefits of growth out to a nation that has developed one of the worst income inequality problems in the world. Rapid growth has come to major cities, but not the countryside. As Deng Xiaoping famously said forty years ago, “Someone has to get rich first,” Today’s issue is who gets to be comfortable after that. With the incredible number of trips by train it can easily be called a success, and on many lines it does seem to be a net income generator.
The cost is also more than reasonable. China spends $20-24 million per km of track. This is about half of the estimated $36-44 million per km in Europe, but much less than the $93-118 per km that the California project was running. China builds rail for less than one quarter of the cost in California.
Some of this is due to lower labor costs, without a doubt. But China also has factories which pump out the pieces of each train line, starting from bridge supports through track bed and rails. Concrete is not poured on-site, but rather in ideal conditions for maximum strength and durability. It is then shipped to the site to be assembled something like a big Lego set, with rail often being laid on a bridge on one side often before the other side is completed.
Some of these techniques were learned from the two key demonstration projects, completed in 2011 – just eight years ago. These two small projects were the first rail, and they consisted of a maglev train in Shanghai to the airport and a small convention line from Beijing to Tianjin. They were build by China Rail in a joint venture with Deutsche Bahn, the German rail company, and Siemens.
The main point being that China didn’t re-invent the wheel, or the track here. They looked at what was available, contracted for foreign help, made a decision to go the safe (not maglev) route, and went forward using industrial economies of scale. They took the knowledge that existed, applied it, and improved upon it.
Would this work in California, or perhaps elsewhere in the US? The methods employed to arrive at a plan certainly would. It may seem politically difficult to ask for Chinese help to build our train lines, but then again such a joint project could easily smooth over a lot of current issues.
More to the point, could we build rail lines for 20-25% of what we do now? Probably not, but it is reasonable that we can build faster lines than what has been proposed for half as much money. That’s taking out the lower costs of labor and everything else, but applying the same basic methods as in China.
Back to the California plan, however. At over $100 million per km it was a terrible idea. There is no excuse for it to take as long to install or the low speeds that were planned. Everything about this project was horribly wrong. High speed rail may not be as practical here as it is in China, given lower population density and great distances. But if we are to go forward with a project, what we had in the works was certainly not it.
California high speed rail is dead. Let’s hope something better can now receive the attention and money it was getting.