High-Speed Rail

California's Bullet Train Project Doesn't Deserve Your Moist-Eyed Love Letters

A corrupt boondoggle that broke the bank for subsidized middle-class trips would not have been the flagship for a greener America.


California bullet train
Gary Reyes/TNS/Newscom

Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom's announcement that he's reducing the scope of the massively under-budgeted and behind schedule bullet train project quickly drew national attention, even though few outside the state seemed to be paying much mind to what was actually happening with the project and how poorly it was going.

Newsom declared on Tuesday in his State of the State address that he's scaling back the project, approved by voters in 2008. He's going to complete the first leg of the high-speed rail in the Central Valley of California, between Bakersfield and Merced. The state will continue the environmental research to try to connect the rail to San Francisco and to Los Angeles, but Newsom's speech Tuesday made it pretty clear that whatever such a project might look like, it's probably not going to be the same train folks voted for.

But it was never going to be the train that Californians voted for, and that's a significant part of the problem.

People were sold a $33 billion train that would connect Los Angeles to San Francisco in under three hours. What Californians actually got was a corrupt, sprawling disaster that weaved through unnecessary parts of the state so that all sorts of interested parties could get their slice of the pie.

These and other problems (many of them predicted years ago, including by the Reason Foundation) seem to be lost in the national discussion, which has skewed toward a "Why does everybody have high-speed rail but America?" type of response. It's also been cited as yet another reason to distrust the Green New Deal proposal, which leans heavily on high-speed rail as a way of reducing reducing carbon emissions. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, mocked California's train plan on Twitter, and says he wants the federal money back, even though he's on the record as supporting high-speed rail. So much for Infrastructure Week!

There's a very urban, blinkered, bubble-life idea behind bullet trains, in the sense that pretty much everybody heavily promoting them lives in large urban areas and is interested in linking large urban areas together. The bullet train has massive appeal, for instance, to the "Acela crowd," professionals in Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C. who travel between those cities on the only profitable stretch of Amtrak in the nation.

All that is to say, the California high-speed rail project's biggest supporters are people who won't need it, but are hoping that it succeeds so that more places will embrace high-speed rail (like their own cities).

In that sense, these people should be glad that the full bullet train isn't going to happen here in California. It's been a costly, politically toxic nightmare that seems almost designed to enrich a small number of people during the construction phase and then batter public coffers once operation begins. Reporters at the Los Angeles Times have done an excellent job tracking down and reporting on the many, many screw-ups along the way that got the train to this point and essentially forced Newsom's hand. Yet, oddly, the Times' own editorial board seems oblivious to its problems and are very upset that the train isn't going the full distance:

The bullet train was supposed to be the backbone of a fast, clean mass-transportation system that would connect urban centers across the state. It's clear that California has to expand its transportation systems to keep up with population and economic growth. The bullet train offered a more sustainable solution than paving more farmland for freeway lanes and adding more planes to the skies.

The problem, though, is that it wasn't fast, it isn't really clean, it might not be financially sustainable without huge subsidies, and the state does, in fact, have to destroy many acres of farmland to build it. It also demands the entire state subsidize travel for a small percentage of the population, as opposed to subsidies for roads and airports that are used by much greater numbers.

Let's consider that freeway lanes line from that editorial for just a moment. Supporters believe that high-speed rail is going to somehow reduce congestion in large cities. And while residents in places like Los Angeles and San Francisco may spend long times commuting by car through congested traffic (40 minutes or more), it's not because they're commuting long distances. The length of the average work commute in most major cities is actually less than 10 miles.

High-speed rail is just simply not going to impact existing urban congestion in America to the degree many people seem to assume. Even the Green New Deal sort of recognizes that—with the initial draft proposal focusing instead on how it might reduce domestic air travel.

What supporters really hope high-speed rail does is encourage residential development outside of cities. And that feels necessary not because our cities have too many people, but because of terrible housing policies that make it impossible for demand to meet supply. The vision of people living in Merced and commuting more than 100 miles a day to San Francisco is a direct result of how utterly impossible it is to build new housing in San Francisco. Liberating urban development would be faster and cheaper than constructing high-speed rail.

The ultimate irony here is that the same influential forces that sabotage housing development reform in cities like Los Angeles—NIMBY neighbors and union bullies demanding contract work—also wrecked the prospects of the bullet train.

Over at the Washington Post, Megan McCardle has a very clear-eyed view about the many logistical problems in attempting to build high-speed rail in the United States. For me, one of the more amusing components of the New Green Deal was how it proposed this massive national high-speed rail program, but in another part of the plan it stated it wanted to prevent the abuse of eminent domain.

Building a completely new train program across the country is going to involve tearing up some of those fruited plains and blowing holes in some purple mountains majesty. People live in those areas aren't just going to step aside because of urban folks' retro-modern fantasies of zooming through the landscape and thinking that they're helping save the environment.

Over at Slate, Henry Grabar, who is very, very much in favor of high-speed rail development, is extremely aware of the many flaws in California's bullet train plan (including the fact that it didn't go directly from San Francisco to Los Angeles and the irresponsible process by which the project was started without even knowing how it was going to actually be built).

Ultimately, California's bullet train project was a cash grab for contractors and consultants, intended to primarily serve middle- and upper-class urban citizens with disposable income. Over at Streetsblog SF, under a huffy "Fine, enjoy your traffic!" editorial, written in December, not a few commenters said they'd rather see the state focus on improving the quality of urban transit, which, unlike high-speed rail, actually would help less wealthy citizens move freely and contribute to the state's economy.

People prefer streets and airlines to trains because they allow them the freedom to go wherever it is they want or need. Trains limit travel choices and are a reflection of a type of civil leadership devoted to a top-down vision of what a city (or country) should look like, rather than what it does look like.