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California Should Stay the Course

December 07, 2019

California's high-speed rail project is going ahead despite false media reports last winter that Gov. Gavin Newsom had pulled the plug. But it still faces serious challenges, and some key decision points are looming.

First, let's be clear about the importance of this project. A lot hinges on it.

The initial segment—the Central Valley line—is the best way to demonstrate the power of high-speed trains on a national stage. It can be transformative far beyond California. But how it’s built matters.

A proposal put forward by powerful members of the legislature would scale it back to meet the minimal requirements of federal grants. The new tracks would run from just Madera to Shafter (where connections to the BNSF railroad could be built) instead of going the full length from Merced to Bakersfield. And the trains would not be electrified, so they would run at top speeds of 125 mph—or nearly 100 mph slower than the electrified trains of the current vision.

Under this proposal, funds from the state earmarked for high-speed rail would be shifted to improvements to the Burbank – Los Angeles – Anaheim line used by Metrolink commuter trains.

These commuter line upgrades would result in substantial ridership increases. And they’re consistent with the long-term high-speed rail plan. They need to happen.

But we can’t afford to put the electrified Central Valley line in competition with much-needed upgrades to Metrolink. We can’t frame this as a choice between mutually exclusive options.

We need to do both. We need say yes/and instead of either/or.

Get together and go big

Killing the electrification plans would keep us stuck in the rut of recent rail development in the U.S. We under-invest because non-HSR projects seem more urgent and more practical. So we never get to the tipping point for making high-speed rail viable. Plus, we spend more over the long haul and send carbon emissions soaring. It’s this short-term thinking that gives us clogged roads, dirty air, and a global climate crisis.

The bolder possibilities of a big-picture vision guide our path. Rather than settling for what seems cheap and doable in the short run, supporters of train transportation should cooperate and find funding for both an electrified Central Valley line and electrified commuter rail in LA.

Why is it so vital for trains in the Central Valley to be electrified and run at speeds of roughly 200 mph (rather than 125 mph)?

The 170-mile line will tie together a region that’s home to many of the state’s key universities and institutions. It’s the tipping point that can make California’s whole high-speed system viable. But only if it’s electrified.

In the short run, the electrified trains will slash travel times between Bakersfield and Merced by about 2 hours (versus conventional trains). They’ll also boost ridership on buses and passenger trains that connect the Central Valley line to the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

In the long run, an electrified Central Valley line will transform the state’s whole transportation system. It will drive up demand for all train and transit options, increase revenues, and drive down costs. For example, the California High Speed Rail Authority estimates that adding high-speed rail service will reduce the average cost of passenger train service in Northern California by nearly $7.50 per trainmile.

All of these benefits—more ridership, more revenue, and lower costs—are needed to build the political will and muscle to fulfill California’s original goal of connecting the Bay Area to L.A. by high-speed rail in under three hours.

By pursuing a bold vision of what California can achieve and working together to get there, we can get unstuck from the old business-as-usual rut.

We don’t have to settle for options that seem feasible in the short term—but cost more over the long haul while polluting our air and expanding our carbon footprint.

And we shouldn’t settle for that. We have to do better. We have to do both. Yes to an electrified Central Valley line. Yes to Metrolink upgrades. This is California’s golden opportunity to point us in a new direction and put America on a better path.