Earlier today, the California Senate approved funding for the State’s high-speed rail (HSR) system by a razor thin margin of 21 to 16, the bare minimum necessary, paving the way for bond sales that will help finance the project. Obviously, the vote carries major implications for other states looking to build HSR, and demonstrates the intricate steps that state governments need to take in securing financing at both local and federal levels.

There’s much more coverage on this over at the California High Speed Rail blog. You can also follow the conversation on Twitter via the #CAHSR hashtag, and read commentary from both sides of the debate.

69 Replies to “Breaking: CA State Senate Approves High-Speed Rail”

  1. Thanks for posting, Sherwin!

    This means construction will begin, and major upgrades to existing systems are part of the funded work. It also means the federal government will be VERY likely to give billions more.

  2. Cal HS Rail Blog says vote was 21-16 (57%); couldn’t understand the “slim” 77% hurdle, even though CA seems to have draconian hurdles elsewhere

    1. That’s funny. “The people” voted for it.

      Just because you didn’t get your way, that doesn’t mean something is not right.

    2. We get it. You hate choice. You hate people who choose transit. You hate that we a share and not subsidise only you. Blah, blah, blah. Troll on.

    3. Wait, I get it. When the people vote “yes”, they really mean “no”. That’s the key.

    4. “The people” voted on a tax to fund high speed rail in 2008. “The people” also voted for the members of the California State Assembly and California State Senate. If this turns out to not be what people wanted I’m sure it will come up in the next election as a campaign issue.

  3. The last time I read about this one of the cost saving compromises was to not bring the HSR trains into the downtowns of SF or LA but make it interchange at a terminus on their local transit systems.

    1. Such is the nature of cutting costs, and most large projects are a compromise. Maybe they can head all the way into cities in the future, just like it took until the second round for Link to go somewhere other than the airport (or third round, if you count constructing the bus tunnel).

      1. Interesting. Their 2012 Updated Business Plan (PDF) call for “blended” service. It sounds like they’re aiming to run on existing rail in cities with service (such as CalTrain), and over time improve those railways to meet HSR standards (grade-separated, etc). Check out the map on p.9.

      2. I think it makes sense this way…really to me this train is just a regional version of ‘transit’.

        With HSR, the 60 mile commute becomes a 200 mile commute. The metro area of 30 square miles is now 300 or 3000 sq miles.

        And the inevitable Google Car will make it more so.

      3. “It sounds like they’re aiming to run on existing rail in cities with service (such as CalTrain), and over time improve those railways to meet HSR standards (grade-separated, etc).”

        That sounds quite sensible and I think other cities have built out their networks the same way. The corollary is that the state will pay much of the cost of electrifying Caltrain. The article I read said that this would be one of the first projects, so that the cities would share in some of the immediate benefits, not just the low-population Central Valley.

        “With HSR, the 60 mile commute becomes a 200 mile commute.”

        Only for the rich. If tickets cost twice as much as Amtrak Cascades (or maybe three times as much since the latter are subsidized), only a few people will be able to travel twice a day on it. That’s assuming they want to burn their money on a luxury commute rather than on something else.

      4. I note this is how much of Europe has built its high speed networks. Start with nice high-speed tracks out where the land is cheap, gradually improve speeds on the tracks in more built-up areas.

    2. It took an additional fifteen years and the digging of a new tunnel to bring HSR into central London after the Channel Tunnel was completed.

      HSR systems have to be modular and forwards compatible, because no one has enough money to build the perfect HSR system overnight. Anyone trying to build HSR, or transit in general should build a single project that can stand on its own, and then upgrade and build out when more capital becomes available.

    3. Bailouts,

      As usual, you’re wrong about anything outside the two mile radius of the top of East Hill. The HSR trains will share trackage with the local heavy rail commuter systems on the Peninsula south of San Francisco, from Palmdale through central LA, and then from Oceanside to San Diego.

      As a result speeds will be somewhat slower than full HSR on those segments. But they total only about 20% of the length of the planned system. And the improvements to the shared segments will result in higher speeds and electrification for the commuter systems.

      1. So the trains will still come into downtown SanFran but at regular speeds on the existing railbeds?

        Ok, I read it as they would stop somewhere like the Concord BART station, and drop everyone off there.

        (I kind of remember these were the sort of interfaces between the national rail and Metro when I visited Paris. The interchange stations were on branches.

      2. Trains will travel up to 125mph near the urban areas. That’s faster than the regular speeds on Caltrain and Metrorail now.

      3. Yes, the HS trains will terminate in a new subterranean loop station under the TransBay Terminal in San Francisco under construction now. That’s several blocks closer to the center of the city than the CalTrain station.

        There will be a third “express” track in the center of the CalTrain line after the rebuild. It will be used for the HS trains and CalTrain Baby Bullets when available. Obviously, with just one track one of two meeting HS trains will have to be diverted to the commuter track for its direction between two cross-overs. That’s less than optimal for sure, but there simply isn’t room for four tracks over most of the alignment.

        All grade crossings will be closed after the build, which is why there has been quite a bit of local opposition in some of the smaller towns on the Peninsula. Grade separations will necessarily funnel traffic onto fewer but busier streets and folks will have to change their routes.

        However, it means that the track speed on the center track will be in the 80 to 100 mile per hour range, depending on curvature. It will be only a half hour from the TransBay Terminal to Diridon where the HS trains can step up to full speed.

        The current San Joaquins will use the new trackage from Merced to Bakersfield when it’s ready, shaving about twenty minutes from the run time. They will be able to go 110 with no opposing movements for that 140 miles.

        It’s of course important that the gaps between San Jose and Merced and between Bakersfield and Palmdale be completed — and they’re the spendiest sections because of the required heavy engineering — no money will be “wasted” on these improvements, because there is already service over all the trackage to be upgraded or replaced that will benefit. There full won’t be realized of course, but some will accrue.

        That’s why there are three components to the initial bonding.

      4. I hope the speeds are faster when leaving Union Station in LA than they were in 2001. We crawled for miles on the way to San Diego @ incredibly slow speeds until we cleared the adjacent freight yard. Entry to and exit from Union Station, LA was painfully archaic.

      5. Alki, the LA Union Station plans are rather complicated. T

        he corridor from LAUS to Fullerton (on the way to San Diego) is very busy with freight. They’re three-tracking the whole of it, and four-tracking some sections, and have been doing so for a while; it’s already faster than it was in 2001. They’re also grade-separating it (because the FRA doesn’t like roads crossing four-track and three-track lines).

        The other slowdown for trains going south is the LA Union Station layout, where the trains have to go north and then do a 180-degree turn. The plan is to have “run-through tracks” leaving LAUS to the south, but this involves a giant aerial structure running over several blocks of downtown LA, so it keeps getting delayed….

        The northern approach to LAUS for high-speed rail is currently being designed. The current northern approach is also overcrowded, so the plan involves additional tracks.

    4. No, they’ll serve the downtown stations (Transbay in SF, Union Station in LA) but initially will do so via shared existing tracks, with new tracks built between the metro areas via the Central Valley. That’s similar phasing to how European HSR systems were built.

  4. Healthcare ruling and now this. Obama has had 2 major victories recently. Now if unemployment would just come down a little more.

    1. Only way to do that is with direct government spending of money (preferably direct government hiring). Private companies are too scared to invest.

  5. Love it. Take the Shasta Daylight to the Bay Area and then change to a TGV type train. I truly love it.

    1. Seeing that the only thing funded is a 130 mile stretch in the Central Valley,how is that exciting. With a Romney administration and Moonbeam not lasting another term…

      1. That stretch probably won’t even open until after Romney is out of office. There will be more Democrats, and building infrastructure like this is a ratchet – once you start, you’ll only add to it.

      2. There is also funding for local rail improvements in LA and the Bay Area. The 130 mile segment is just the start of the system.

      3. The first time I took the TGV, I left from Switzerland for Paris. We trundled along on curvy conventional track for 3-4 hours before joining the then extant LGV (High-speed trackage) just north of Lyon, which then took two hours to get to Paris.

        So what had been a 12 hour journey was then a 6 hour one, which made the train certainly faster than a bus or car, and given that this was pre-Schengen and passport checks could be carried out enroute onboard the train, almost as fast as flying.

        Today the journey is even faster, I believe.

        Of course it helped that the tracks were electrified the whole way, but until very recently SNCF was hauling TGV trainsets with a Diesel locomotive for a portion of their journey on a route that included non-electrified tracks.

        Why is this so hard for the English-speaking world to figure out?

      4. “Why is this so hard for the English-speaking world to figure out?”

        That gets into why the anti-tax, libertarian, anti-welfare sentiment is so prominent in English-speaking countries. Culture is transmitted much more readily within language groups than between them, and it seems that these are really cultural sentiments. The US may be far more anti-tax and anti-welfare than Britain, but Britain is more so than France or Germany or Scandinavia.

  6. Glad I could highlight this. Not sure why STB feels it’s to there credit:

    To our credit, the Times has a nice guide on recreational riding in Seattle.

    California is going bust. If high speed rail was going to create the next gold rush then it would make sense. The Cal Tran portion sort of makes sense and tipped the balance of the vote. But let’s remember, CA is an economy much larger than Greece and they are on the same path to ruin.

    1. Us as in Seattle. As opposed to Vancouver and Portland, highlighted in the sentence/story above it. (Not seeing how any of this is relevant to this story, why is it not in the News Roundup thread?)

    2. Bernie,

      That’s only because California’s short-sighted wing-nuts won’t agree to pay for what it needs. People from around the world want to live there because it is the largest “Mediterranean” environment outside Italy and Spain and it has work of some kind for most anyone. California has a permanent “competitive advantage” from its location. It’ll come back roaring.

    3. CA’s economic problems stem in large part from the costs of dependence on oil. Many things need to happen to fix the state’s finances. One of them is reducing oil dependence. An electric train from SF to LA will be a big help. Further, infrastructure stimulus is good for state finances and budget.

      1. No they don’t, California’s buget problem stems entirely from over spending. CA is 3rd behind only Texas and Alaska in production of crude oil. Go play the budget game. Hint, a 9.9% tax on on crude pumped from California land is one of the revenue options.

      2. Bernie,
        More properly California’s problems stem from people wanting government services without wanting to pay for them.
        This is further aggravated by an initiative system even more broken than ours which allows direct amendment of the State Constitution. Through the amendment process voters have made it nearly impossible to either pass a budget or to raise taxes. Combine that with various tax cuts the voters have passed for themselves and you have a recipe for disaster.

      3. The problem in California, if you actually go through in detail and look at historical tax and spending levels, Bernie — the problem is not a spending problem; it’s a *refusal to levy taxes* problem, which is partly due to prop 13 from the 1970s imposing ridiculous supermajority requirements.

  7. My biggest concern is this – local, intra-city trips are the trips most people make every day, often multiple times each day. Long-distance, inter-city trips are trips most people make at most a few times a year, either for business or vacation purposes.

    While long-distance high-speed rail does have some value, it is extremely expensive, and if the goal is to save people real time in their travels, this is money that would be far more effectively spent to improve travel options for the shorter trips people make everyday.

    And if the goal is that high-speed rail will transform trips that are currently thought of as long-distance into everyday commuter trips, that is not a goal we should be working towards, at least not if we care about environmental sustainability. Do we really want people commuting all the way from LA to San Francisco for work every day, even if a train existed to cut the travel time down to a couple of hours?

    Even when you do make long-distance trips, a large portion of the travel time gets eaten up on local transportation, as long-distance transportation hubs are nobody’s origin and nobody’s ultimate destination. For example, even though Amtrak today gets from Seattle to Portland in 3 1/2 hours, by the time you ride the bus from home to King Street Station, allow yourself a half-hour cushion in case the bus is late, and ride another bus in Portland from Union Station to wherever your real destination is, the 3 1/2 hour trip to Portland suddenly becomes at least a 5 hour trip. While we could improve upon this somewhat through track improvements to get the trains running faster, there is a lot more low-hanging fruit in investing in local transportation improvements to make that portion of the trip faster. And these improvements would benefit everyday trips, not just vacation trips.

    So, my unfortunately conclusion with regard to California is that yes, high-speed rail is indeed a waste of money. Instead, we should be using the money to extend the Bart service, or transform the Cal-train from an hourly service that’s almost useless into something that runs frequently enough to actually be useful. And extend the rail system down in LA to go to more places as well. And only when we have top-notch regional transit systems in both the San Francisco and LA areas, then we can throw tens of billions of dollars at making the connection between those two areas faster.

    1. Thank you. The state shoul really focus on an infrastructure bank to support the expansion within the major urban centers….more bang for the buck anyway…,

    2. “While long-distance high-speed rail does have some value, it is extremely expensive, and if the goal is to save people real time in their travels,”

      The goal is to approach the speed of air travel while using a fraction of the fuel. And in the US, medium-speed rail is just bringing the rail network to its neglected potential, and the speed it had a hundred years ago.

      “this is money that would be far more effectively spent to improve travel options for the shorter trips people make everyday.”

      That is needed too. It’s not an either/or.

      “And if the goal is that high-speed rail will transform trips that are currently thought of as long-distance into everyday commuter trips, that is not a goal we should be working towards, at least not if we care about environmental sustainability. Do we really want people commuting all the way from LA to San Francisco for work every day, even if a train existed to cut the travel time down to a couple of hours?”

      That’s not the goal, and it’s not realistic anyway. A ticket from LA to San Francisco will cost a hundred dollars or two. Ordinary people can’t pay that every day. And rich people have helicopters.

      The goal is to capture market share on the occasional inter-city trips and partial-distance trips, diverting usage from airplanes/cars/buses to more fuel-efficient trains. When that is in place, the total number of inter-city trips will increase (because it’s artificially being held down now), but for each person it will still be only a handful of trips a year rather than every day or every week.

      1. Your points are well taken, and to be clear, if money were infinite, I would agree that high speed rail between LA and San Francisco would be a good idea.

        However, the fact remains that that the regional transit systems (and, for that matter, walking and biking networks as well) in California’s major urban areas are in need of major upgrades to become competitive with the car. For example, a couple of years ago, I need to travel from the Richmond district in San Francisco to a hotel in Redwood City. Since the hotel was located just a mile from a CalTrain station, accomplishing the trip by transit should have been quick easy. But the hourly headways on the CalTrain (absolutely ridiculous for a corridor worthy of ten lanes of freeway each direction) combined with unpredictable travel times of the local buses getting from the Richmond district to the CalTrain station downtown boosted the travel time to almost two hours for what would have been a 35-40 minute car trip. And to make matters worse, the last mile would have involved a dangerous crossing of highway 101 on foot at 11:00 at night (very similar to crossing 405 at the NE 8th bridge in Bellevue). In the end, I finally settled on taking Bart to the airport, then waiting 30 minutes at the airport for the hotel shuttle to come pick me up – to illustrate what people there think of transit, the hotel willing transports their guests 10 miles to the airport at no charge, but does not offer shuttle service to the CalTrain station a mere one mile from the hotel and right on the way to/from the airport. If I had to do it over again, I would have just coughed up the money for a taxi.

        Had Muni and/or local buses offered fast/reliable connections to CalTrain, had the CalTrain run every 10 minutes, rather than once an hour, and had a safe bicycle/pedestrian overpass over highway 101 existed for that last mile, making the trip by transit would have been easy and safe.

        The money that California is choosing to spend on improving long-distance transit over improving trips like this is a misplaced priority – far more people travel regularly between San Francisco and Redwood City than between San Francisco and Los Angelas.

        What I think California is really saying here (although they may not quite put it that bluntly) is that regional transit is a solved problem, in that everybody is responsible for buying their own car and driving it everywhere, while for inter-city transportation, transit can compete favorably with the car if you can boost the running speeds high enough, due to the shear number of miles involved.

        This logic, however, is extremely shortsighted for several reasons. Here are a couple:

        1) Traffic congestion is a largely a problem of urban areas where lots of people travel back and forth every day – not along I-5 in the middle of nowhere. If the goal is to provide an alternative to ever-widening freeways indefinitely, we need to focus on providing transit for regional trips, not inter-city trips. If we build HSR and don’t improve our regional transit systems, we will still have to widen freeways in urban areas, where it is most expensive and most disruptive. However, if we improve our regional transit systems and don’t build HSR, we can avoid widening highways within urban areas, and the existing width of highways in rural areas will remain plenty to handle the limited amount of inter-city traffic.

        2) If you want your high-speed rail network to attract enough riders to make it anything other than a giant boondoggle, people need to be able to get from home to the train station and from the train station to their final destination on the other side. The existing high-speed-inter-city-transit network (aka. airports) solves this problem by building massive parking facilities for people to drive to the station on their side, along with massive rental car facilities for people to rent cars on the other side. While this approach might work ok for airports in the middle of nowhere, there is simply not enough room for anywhere near this much parking if you want your train stations to be located in the middle of downtown. Which means people have to rely on either transit or taxis for station access. Which means if you build HSR without significantly improving the local and regional transit systems, the only people that will get to use the HSR will be those whose origin and destinations are close enough to the station for taxis to be relatively affordable. Even if stations are located downtown, this severely limits the market share – only a small percentage of the trips between the LA and San Francisco metro areas are actually downtown-downtown trips.

      2. I’m aware that regional and local travel in the Bay Area is substandard. It’s a far distant fourth compared to New York, Chicago, and DC. (I can’t comment on Boston since I’ve never been there, or Philly since I’ve only been there briefly.) Living in Caltrain-land is frustrating compared to living in BART-land.

        However, MUNI in San Francisco is much more frequent and comprehensive than Seattle’s transit, even if it’s frustratingly slow due to congestion.

      3. Do note that both the Bay Area and LA have billions in regional transit improvements currently underway. The Bay area has in addition to the new Transbay Terminal, the Muni Central Subway and San Jose BART, along with some other smaller projects.
        LA is in the process of a massive expansion of its light rail and subway network. The Westside subway, the regional connector, Expo line phase II, and the Crenshaw line are all major improvements.

      4. The Bay Area keeps choosing to make… poor choices on its local rail system upgrades. Is it really the state’s responsibility to replace the decisions of the local governments about LOCAL transportation? (It is a federal issue, yes, because only the feds can print money).

        Meanwhile, the LA area is embarking on truly massive expansions, without asking for state help (federal help, yes, because only the feds can print money).

        In contrast, it is *clearly* the state’s responsiblity to provide intercity transportation; neither LA nor SF will provide it by themselves. They *should* be providing the local transportation themselves (apart from the federal money-printing assist).

    3. The problem is increased travel between California’s major and minor urban areas is choking both the road network and the airports. Expanding capacity is going to be quite expensive, funding HSR is still cheaper than widening I-5 by one lane all the way from the US/Mexico border to Sacramento.

      1. The HSR project is projected to cost $74 Billion dollars. That would work out to $148 million dollars per lane mile! The actual cost per lane mile is only $2-3 million.

      2. Congestion along I-5 is a problem of urban areas, not rural areas. We will not have to widen I-5 all the way from the US border to Sacramento with or without HSR. But without regional transit improvements, we may have to widen I-5 through LA, along with 101 through the San Francisco bay area, again, either with or without HSR.

      3. “But without regional transit improvements, we may have to widen I-5 through LA, along with 101 through the San Francisco bay area, again, either with or without HSR.”

        In other words, just the expensive parts.

      4. asdf,
        I hate to tell you this but the highways between San Diego, Los Angeles, San Bernardino/Riverside, Sacramento, and the Bay Area all have quite heavy traffic for much of the day, perhaps not to the point of being stop and go (though the Bay Area to Central Valley corridors and the SD/LA/Inland Empire triangle often are stop and go), but still quite heavy. Then there is the Grapevine which is its own special flavor of Hell.

        Furthermore the air corridors between California cities are some of the most heavily traveled in the country outdone only by the NE Corridor. Airport congestion is already a major issue and airport expansion does not come cheap.

      5. The cost per lane mile does come out to something like $148 million per lane mile once you start trying to widen the road through the Sepulveda Pass again (for example) or one of the long trenched sections or one of the long elevated sections or…..

    4. HSR between SF and LA is not a waste of money. In between commuter rail and vacationing is what the route between SF and LA has become……..a very heavy traveled corridor for both business and pleasure. Flights leave every half hour from LAX and every hour from Burbank. And those flights are pretty much full. What’s a pain is getting from the airports in those cities to your destination…….usually to the downtowns or the inner city neighborhoods. It can take up to an hour. HSR from DT to DT can alleviate a lot of that travel time. It will not be a waste.

    5. Shouldn’t have to be an either/or proposition. California needs both intercity bullet trains and more rail in the metro areas, from commuter service to subways to light rail to streetcars. The same is true in the Northwest. If money is limited, our job is to fight to grow the pie.

      1. The “pie” CHSR is competing with is the one for highway and airport expansion, not the one for local transit.

        Trying to pit High Speed Rail against local transit service is just as stupid as trying to pit local bus service against urban or regional rail.

      2. California’s High Speed Rail Authority doesn’t print money. Neither can the Dems in the California State Legislature although they also appear to think that money is unlimited.

    6. This is a once-in-fifty-years opportunity. California lost big time by not implementing HSR in the 1970s like Europe and Japan, when it would have been more affordable — like how Seattle turned down a subway in 1972. If we don’t build the current HSR proposal, it will be another 30-50 years until another generation is willing to try it. That means another 30-50 years of car/bus/plane dependency.

    7. asdf,
      Huh? You say “long-distance transportation hubs are nobody’s origin and nobody’s ultimate destination” but in the case of downtowns that is not so. Rail stations are very often located in the center of the city. The best transit service in their respective regions, including light rail, is right outside the door of both King Street Station and Portland Union Station if downtown happens to not be your origin or destination. YMMV, but for me taking Cascades is quite time competitive with both flying to Portland and driving. Furthermore whatever slight time penalty remains is more than made up for by the lower level of stress and aggravation riding the train has over either flying or driving.

      Similarly HSR in California will be serving the Transbay terminal and LA Union Station which are both major regional transportation hubs.

      Don’t forget that CHSR will offer major upgrades to both the Caltrain corridor and to one Metrolink Corridor which would be needed in order to increase the service frequency.

      1. If all you look at is downtown->downtown in-vehicle travel time, driving and Amtrak take virtually the same amount of time – about 3 1/2 hours (allowing some time in the driving case for traffic and bathroom stops).

        But, unless downtown Seattle is your home (which is almost never the case – downtown is largely office and retail space, not much residential), you have to factor in time for the bus ride to get downtown, plus the 30 minute cushion you need to allow yourself at the station so you don’t miss the train if the bus runs a little late. Given that even neighborhoods like capitol hill and Queen Anne are a half-hour bus ride away from King St. station, it’s unrealistic to expect anything less than a 30-minute bus ride on the Seattle side. So, even if your hotel in Portland is right next to Union Station, you’re already up to an hour over driving. Now, if you’re actual destination in Portland is a few miles outside of downtown, rather than in downtown itself, add another 30 minutes of bus riding plus 15 minutes of waiting plus 15 minutes of walking. Now, you’re up to 2 hours longer by transit than by car – not trivial for a trip than was only 3 1/2 hours to begin with.

        I do agree with you that the Cascades is a much more pleasant experience than driving and the additional 60-90 minutes of door-to-door travel time is, for me, well worth it, but the bottom line is the key to making Seattle->Portland trips faster is not the Amtrak train itself – it’s making the local transportation faster and more frequent that gets you to and from the stations on each end. With Link in 2016, Capitol Hill->King St. should hopefully be much less than half an hour. With a similar subway line running west of Lake Union, Queen Anne->King St. station should also take much less than half an hour. And these improvements will also benefit everybody in their everyday trips, while you only realize the benefits improvements to Amtrak itself when you take a once-a-year vacation.

        Nevertheless, your comment about upgrades to the Caltrain and MetroLink corridor leading to regional transit improvements is important.

  8. Reality check time.

    While I share the enthusiasm for “High”(er)-Speed Rail and see the great necessity and opportunity for it in California, as someone “on the ground” I have to share my pessimism too.

    There is a movement to get this project up on the ballot this November and kill it.

    And there are also lawsuits in the works, because the original ballot measure foolishly contained the promise of providing 2h40m travel times from Los Angeles to S.F.


    “The Browndoggle” they are calling it.

    Don’t underestimate the political power these two have:

    1. It’s too late to get anything on the November 2012 ballot in California unless the Legislature puts it on the ballot. A signature gathering effort now won’t get anything on the ballot until 2014, by which point it will be too late.

      Also, John and Ken’s political power is vastly overstated. They have yet to show any game at all when it comes to statewide races or initiatives.

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