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.

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  1. I remember when Reason first started reporting on this boondoggle. We knew the predictions of over-schedule and over-budget would come true, so I can’t say I’m surprised. Really the only surprising thing is that the Governor is scaling it back rather than doubling down.

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  2. And yet somehow, progressives still believe that government programs are the way to utopia. This is why federalism is so important. Get rid of 90% of the US federal government and let the states decide what they want and how they get it. If the state of california wants high speed rail, single payer healthcare, free education through college, etc let them have it in california paid for by california taxpayers.

    The side benefit of reducing the structural/rational issues in regards to political ignorance and really re-introduce voting with your feet.

    1. Very well said

  3. Hopefully California won’t give the grant money back to South Dakota, because it’s already been earmarked for a California public sector union.

  4. “…People were sold a $33 billion train that would connect Los Angeles to San Francisco in under three hours…”

    Several of us laughed and laughed.

    1. Once they chose to go through Palmdale instead of following I-5 I knew it would never be competitive with pretty much any other form of transportation.

      1. Not to mention the political pressure over time to “stop in my town”.
        Then there was no mention about the high security costs involved either.
        Then there was no mention of the fact there was no infrastructure at the terminals to move people to and from the train.
        Then they came for my wallet.

        1. Nor was there a single dime in the ‘budget’ for maintenance. The trains were going to be like the ‘Marvelous One Hoss Shay’, except for lasting 1000 years.

      2. Living in the Antelope Valley I can tell you there is no cost-effective means of constructing rail for any kind of high-speed rail through to Palmdale. Once you are in Palmdale it’s desert (much of which is owned by the military or public utilities), but the cost of getting to Palmdale is pretty much a deal breaker.

  5. Really, what the hell is wrong with people? This was a stupid idea then, it’s a stupid idea now, and they just can’t get over it. They ignore fucking reality, common sense, and all the evidence that said this is a waste, wasn’t going to work, and is just something for idiots to support.

    1. “just something for idiots to support.”

      You haven’t realized that the majority of humanity is comprised of idiots?

  6. How is an elevated train a good idea in an earthquake zone?

    1. That’s what I was thinking when I say the pic.

    2. CA is pretty experienced with build earthquake resistant structures, so it might not be that big of a concern. But it doesn’t look like a good idea.

      1. There is the structure and then there is the issue of the train falling from said structure(s) in a really good shaker. Don’t know, but it sure sounds like a possibility.

    3. Structural engineers exist.

  7. The crazy thing is that this train didn’t make sense from day 1 because to go through the Central Valley cities takes the length of the route out of the sweet spot for high speed rail!?! Pull up Google maps and check out the route of I-5, it doesn’t go through Palmdale and the hearts of the cities. And I say all of this as an initial supporter of the project when oil spiked to $130 a barrel. Once Elon Musk started producing Teslas with autonomous capabilities it was clear nobody would use this train by the time it was completed.

    1. The advantage of the central valley would have been to turn it into a commuter train. Which is what it was going to be.

      High speed it was not going to be as soon as the route changed. It was only ‘high speed’ when it was SF to LA, but they couldn’t afford either the land, or the construction costs. Too many high priced areas with too many mountains and rivers.

  8. The federal unspent money should be seized. People should be heading to jail except for the fact that the bird brained California voters passed this. On second thought, charge all Californians with a felony conspiracy to steal my money and send them to jail. Make sure their voting rights are never restored.

    1. we’d need more government created jails. The corruption and cost overruns would make the highspeed rail a better investment.

    2. bird brained California voters passed this

      Bird-brained California voters passed a bill that unambiguously said that no work would proceed until all funding had been secured and the project could be guaranteed to not exceed the stated budget.

      IIRC, they were out of compliance within the year, and a Federal judge issued an injunction on the basis that the project was in violation of the bond language. His Jerriness simply ignored them and proceeded on his merry way. And here we are.

  9. This is so sad. Just think of the hundreds of Europeans who would have come over every summer to ride the train and marvel how anything like this could have ever been built.

    1. Nobody speaks French in Fresno.

  10. Right. It makes you wonder what Rebublicans like Mitch McConnell are thinking.

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  11. People outside of California need to push this issue in their local and state media as best they can. It is a glaring indictment of the inability of government to plan what it wants us to think it can plan, of the corruption that is an inherent part of all the government grand schemes, and of the path to bankruptcy that candidates like the current crop of Democratic Presidential aspirants would lead us down. Challenge those candidates on what happened in California and what went wrong, and what their alternative would have been. This needs to be aired.

  12. It’s 165 miles between Merced and Bakersfield. You can drive it in 90 to 120 minutes. Just sayin

    1. Driving it averaging 80-100 explains a lot.

      “The study says Highway 99, a 424-mile road that runs through the state’s Central Valley, leads the country for most fatal crashes per one hundred miles: 62.3 between 2011 and 2015. It adds that Fresno is the deadliest city along the route.”

      1. This. A few years back, thw wife and I were visiting relatives in CA. Last stopover was in Visalia, Next morning we were due to fly out of Burbank and we drove from Visalia. Driving 85 to 90 MPH, I was hardly keeping up with the traffic flow. But the rental car was well flogged that morning…

    2. Just because the high-speed rail part of the GND won’t pan out doesn’t mean we can’t provide a guaranteed income to those unwilling to work.

  13. Self-driving cars are the answer to congestion, not boondoggles like this.

    1. I would posit that once trucks become autonomous, we can run them as high speed pseudo trains on existing highways, both for freight and passenger. You can even make them hydrogen poweded if that floats your boat.

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  16. I believe them. If they actually got the power to completely control the economy then i think most of the GND goals would be completely forgotten.

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