California is one of several states hoping to construct a high speed rail line.
The California high speed rail route has two northern terminii: San Francisco and Sacramento. From San Francisco and Sacramento, the route will travel south through the Central Valley to downtown Los Angeles. From downtown Los Angeles, the route will continue to downtown San Diego via California's "Inland Empire." An additional route would travel from Los Angeles to Irvine. To this day, the most controversial section of the route was how the San Francisco bound trains would travel from the Central Valley to downtown San Francisco. Eventually it was decided that trains would follow the Pacheco pass route near State Highway 152 south of Gilroy. Travel time is estimated to be 2 hours 38 minutes between the downtown San Francisco terminus at the new Transbay Terminal currently under construction and Los Angeles's Union Station. Given that the distance between these two stations is 432 miles, that means that the average speed of the high speed rail trains between those two locations must be 164 mph. Overall, the proposed system would have about 800 miles of track.
The most recent business plan submitted by the California High Speed Rail Authority, the governmental body in charge of constructing the California high speed rail project, to the California State Legislature stated that the cost of construction of the initial San Francisco to Anaheim segment is estimated to be $42.6 billion in year-of-expenditure dollars (www.cahighspeedrail.ca.gov). This cost has increased from an initial estimate of $33.6 billion in 2008. As of November 2011, according to the most recent business plan , the cost has further increased to $98 billion. Revenues are estimated to be $45 billion, broken down into the following categories:
- $9 billion from state proposition 1A (a high speed rail bond measure approved by voters
- $17 - 19 billion from the federal government (of which $2.25 billion has been awarded to this point)
- $4 - 5 billion in local funding
- $10 - 12 billion in private funding
As of this writing about 25% of the total amount of funding has been secured (the money from Proposition 1A and the recently awarded money from the federal government). It is left to the reader to conclude whether it is likely that, in this economy, local governments that are laying off employees (including police and firefighters) will be able to come up with the $4 - 5 billion projected, and whether $10 - 12 billion in private financing will be able to be found.
The high speed rail authority projects that by 2035 forty-one million annual passengers will ride high speed rail; in other words, every resident of California will on average take one one way trip per year. The authority itself admits that its ridership projections are aggressive; on its fact sheet for its business plan it states: "Through its environmental review the Authority is pursuing a scenario of lower ticket fares and larger ridership in order to study the broadest possible environmental impacts." In 2020, the first year of planned operation, 13.5 million riders are expected.
The average ticket price is slated to be set at 83% of the average airfare over the same distance. Since as of this writing one would expect to pay around $150 to travel round trip by plane from the Los Angeles area to the San Francisco Bay area, that would mean that if high speed rail existed today the planned fare would be around $125 round trip on the high speed train. Operating revenues are projected to be $950 million in 2020 and raise to $2.87 billion in 2035.
Benefits and Criticisms
The California High Speed Rail Authority estimates that this project will create 150,000 construction jobs, 450,000 permanent jobs, an eventual profit of $1 billion annually. On the other hand, the Reason Foundation (which admittedly has never been a fan of transit) has estimated the final cost could be up to $81 billion and annual ridership could be as little at 1/3 of projections.
Readers familiar with the proposed routing may be dubious of the authority's claims about speed. For example, fairly steep inclines must be overcome along both the Pacheco Pass between Gilroy and the Central Valley and the Newhall / Acton passes between Los Angeles and Bakersfield. In addition, severe rail congestion in the central Los Angeles area and along the peninsula between San Jose and San Francisco seem certain to either limit speeds or mandate the construction of tunnels which would push the cost up even more. Furthermore, the opposition of residents living near the proposed routes to both eminent domain and unsightly elevated tracks may cause delays in the completion of the project. Some residents liken the proposed security barriers along the network's peninsula route to a "Berlin Wall." It is also interesting that to this point airlines have been silent about their future competition; one would think that if carriers like Southwest and Jet Blue were worried that the rail line would cut into their business they would have put more effort into defeating this project. Also, one would expect much more interest in private companies about this project than they have shown to this point if the prospect of a $1 billion annual profit was likely.
Despite the hurdles that need to be overcome this project may still benefit the state of California. The fact that these trains will run on electricity will be a large benefit in twenty years when oil prices are higher than they are now. As an added bonus the electricity will be clean, as California state law mandates that utilities derive an ever increasing percentage of their electric power from clean sources like wind and solar. Since airport security is also likely to get more intensive, the high speed line will attract those who dislike both the security measures themselves and the large amount of additional time these measures make you spend at the airport before your flight takes off. In addition, the improvements to local commuter train service that will accompany this project will benefit many people who will never take a train between cities on this network.