The Truth About High-Speed Rail

Dan Richard
Chair of the California High-Speed Rail Authority

Of all the challenges we face in building the nation’s first true high-speed rail system, perhaps none is greater than overcoming the misinformation and gross distortions that have attended the project in recent years.     Mark Twain once said that “a lie is halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”   Nothing about traversing the Tehachapis, spanning rivers, protecting habitat or carefully treading a path through cities is anywhere near as difficult as trying to rebut the distortion campaign now underway.

Such was the case in reading the posting here by Harold Johnson of the Pacific Legal Foundation.   His main argument is that the High-speed Rail Authority is embarking on a project that is vastly different from that agreed to by the voters and they should be happy if it fails.   He brings the full quiver of canards – that it won’t really be high-speed, that we’ve given a “grab bag of goodies” to local projects that have no relation to high-speed rail, etc.

None of that is true.

What we are building is precisely what the voters called for – a fully electric, clean fast rail system.  Exactly as set forth in the Bond Act, what we are constructing will be designed to achieve sustained speeds in excess of 200 mph, it will be designed so that non-stop train between LA and San Francisco can be done in 2 hours 40 minutes and it will operate without a subsidy.

So where did all this nonsense come from that we’ve departed from the bond act?   First, it’s because of a deep misunderstanding of the so-called “blended approach” that we’re using in urban areas.   For 90% of the system, we will be laying brand new track.   In urban areas, where the train does not go 200 mph in any case, we’ve been asked to consider using existing track.   As noted, that’s only for about 10% of the system and it covers that portion where trains slow down because they are in densely populated areas (and thus cannot easily build the big curves needed for ultra high-speed operation).   Early business plans of the Authority, before our team got there, clearly showed that speeds in urban areas would be lower.

However, after long consideration, we concluded that we could save billions using existing tracks without sacrificing the design times, sustained high-speeds on the bulk of the system or ridership necessary to operate without a subsidy.   A non-stop high-speed rail will still be able to go from LA to San Francisco in 2 hours 40 minutes, regardless of the use of a portion of blended track. The independent Peer Review Group agreed with this approach.   By the way, other high-speed rail systems do share tracks in certain areas, so it’s not a radical idea.

Also, we have indeed entered into agreements with local transit agencies. That’s a good thing, because what we need is for all those systems to work together.  A case in point is Caltrain on the San Francisco peninsula.   We will help fund the electrification of Caltrain as an early investment in infrastructure that we will use eventually.   All of these agreements are predicated on the notion that money must be spent in accordance with Prop 1A, i.e., to build the high-speed rail system.   Mr. Johnson is a lawyer.   If he reads the documents, he’ll see this is true.

The other basis for this mischaracterization is that we’re proposing to build the project in stages.  This in fact was contemplated by the Bond Act, which refers to useable segments.  The dispute we have with Judge Kenny is that we believe we proposed and the Legislature appropriated funds for a segment that meets this test.  Mr. Johnson goes very far afield when he suggests this was all done in some hazy way; both we and the Legislature had months of open, public hearings where all these issues were discussed.  Moreover, the Legislative Counsel was asked if our program met the criteria of the Bond Act and they said it did.

No one can expect to have a 520mile high-speed system unveiled all at once.  This isn’t a train set under the Christmas tree.   We’re building it in stages, just as the highways and other transportation systems have been built.

And we’re building it with complete fidelity with the Proposition 1A. Suggestions to the contrary are just hokem.

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