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March 18, 2014

California High Speed Rail – back on track?

The California High Speed Rail project, the cornerstone of America’s bid to renew and reinvigorate its underdeveloped railway infrastructure, has begun to veer off the tracks as recent state court actions raise serious concerns regarding the availability of funding to complete the project. Frances Marcellin looks at the road ahead for a new era of rail travel in the US

By Daniel Garrun

California high speed rail

There are currently more than 30 high-speed rail (HSR) services running successfully all over the world. In Europe, Asia (where Japan’s HSR has been running for over 50 years) and India, for example, HSR is benefiting the economy, the environment and its inhabitants – and even the Gulf Coast Countries are now embracing a rail revolution.

Yet in the USA, the biggest economy in world, HSR has yet to get on track.

A new national rail network

Back in 2009 the Federal Railroad Administration, part of the US’ Department of Transportation, released a report entitled "Vision for High Speed Rail in America" that supported President Obama’s pledge to develop high-speed rail networks throughout the US and provide 80% of Americans with access to high-speed rail in 25 years. A collaborative approach from government, states, railroads and other stakeholders was pin-pointed as essential if America’s transportation network was to be transformed.

There are many high-speed rail projects currently in development now in the States, and the US High Speed Rail Association has a vision for a "21st century, 17,000 mile national high speed rail system built in four phases, for completion by 2030".

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This new national system is pitched as sustainable, affordable, safe and fast transportation that will revitalise the economy (and reactivate manufacturing), create jobs, end oil dependency (each day 20 million barrels of oil are used by Americans,70% of which is for transportation), reduce road congestion and decrease the country’s carbon footprint.

Overall, according to associate administrator for the Federal Railroad Administration Kevin Thompson, through $12bn in federal investments the US is currently: building 6,000 corridor miles of track and 40 stations; purchasing 260 new passenger rail cars and 105 locomotives; funding 75 engineering and environmental studies and financing 30 state rail service development plans. These will lay the foundation for long-term, sustainable high-performance passenger rail across the United States – with the California High-Speed Rail project leading the programme.

The California HSR project

The California High-Speed Rail project is the first of its kind to be developed in the US and is the largest in the nation’s history. However since "Proposition 1A" – a ballot proposition and bond measure that allocated funds to the California High-Speed Rail Authority- was sold to voters in 2008, its progress has been riddled with funding issues and problems.

A recent hearing in January 2014, "A Review of the Challenges Facing California High Speed Rail", was held to overcome some of the dominant issues. Chairman Jeff Denham described the project – which was originally pitched at $33bn – as "skyrocketing" and as being "nowhere closer to that viable plan" five years later.

Despite this, Thompson says that the California High Speed Rail project is already progressing. "Environmental reviews and preliminary design work are underway and property is now being acquired," he says. "The project has significant momentum. The federal government has invested $3.8bn in the project and Governor Brown’s FY15 budget proposal includes $250mn for the project in the immediate and $500mn annually for the project."

"The new 2030 total cost came to a maximum of $98bn."

So what is the cost of the project currently predicted to be? "The new 2030 total cost came to a maximum of $98bn," says Rod Diridon, Sr, executive director at the Mineta Transportation Institute and chair emeritus of the California High-Speed Rail Authority Board.

"That number has since been reduced by careful ‘value engineering’ to $68bn for the core element, again in 2030 construction year values. That rail line will stretch from Anaheim in the south, to Los Angeles, through the San Joaquin Valley, to San Jose and San Francisco in the north," he continues, adding that the $68bn price is "probably a bit high because construction costs have turned downward over the last few years with the international banking meltdown".

HSR vital for growth in CA and the USA

With plans afoot for HSR projects in the US’s busiest corridors, called "megaregions" (located in states including Oregon, Washington, Illinois, Texas), the business case for California’s high-speed rail project – which is based on a growing population and transportation and infrastructure costs, increased congestion and a lesser dependence on oil – rings true across all of America.

According to the California Department of Finance, the state’s population is predicted to increase from 39 million to over 50 million by the middle of the century.

"Careful engineering studies have determined that if high-speed rail is not built, the state will need 3,000 more lane-miles of freeways and two additional international airports – one in the north and another in the south," says Diridon.

"That total cost would come to over $200bn. Then that investment would have to be duplicated to meet additional growth in the second half of this century. Along with that are the associated massive use of petroleum, unimaginable congestion on highways, and worsening of the climate change crisis."

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He explains that the transportation needs for the entire century can be met by investing the $68bn in high-speed rail, plus extension costs of $30bn – and it would not have to be rebuilt or expanded to meet that population growth as cars and trains can be added. "The capital-intensive rail system would not change," adds Diridon.

"High-speed rail, along with community transit systems (which high-speed rail catalyses), don’t add cars to the insufferable road congestion and are electrically powered, and therefore significantly reduce petroleum use and the impacts of climate change."

On top of this, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, congestion costs the state’s economy close to $19bn a year and one out of every four flights between San Francisco and Los Angeles are delayed by more than one hour.

Hurdles: size and politics

If the business case appears to be so straightforward for California’s HSR project, then why hasn’t there been a smoother development progression?

"We must remember that the Golden Gate Bridge had 2,300 lawsuits against it before construction in 1934 – and now we could not do without it," reminds Diridon, before explaining that the primary hurdles are two-fold and due to politics, its uniqueness and size.

"Careful engineering studies have determined that if high-speed rail is not built, the state will need 3,000 more lane-miles of freeways and two additional international airports."

The first is a result of the project being targeted by the ultra-conservative groups over the last four years, who, he says have attacked each of the nation’s high-speed rail programmes with "unlimited amounts of anti-project public relations funds".

This, he believes, shifted the project from having support from both political parties nationally to becoming a partisan issue. "In California, the project has enjoyed majority support from the voters and from all four of the state’s recent governors – two Republicans and two Democrats," he says.

The second is down to the sheer size of this vast project, as it is not only complex to accomplish due to strict environmental standards in the US and California, but also "a bit frightening to some facets of the public, who fear the unknown". He adds: "A half-dozen or so lawsuits have caused major delays – and delays for big projects are deadly."

The road ahead

Despite these issues, Diridon is a staunch believer that the HSR will be completed in California and that it will serve as a catalyst for the widespread development of other HSR projects around the States.

"Anyone who believes in a future California and the US with a high quality of life will recognise that the shift to electric-powered transportation must occur," he says.

"And it will occur – this includes not only high-speed rail, but also electrically-powered community feeder systems, electric cars and many more options. If we don’t make that choice now, the alternative will cost horrendously more in terms of funding and a degraded quality of life in our future."

Follow Frances Marcellin on Google+

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