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A $100B Train: The Future of California or a Boondoggle? (nytimes.com)
18 points by gok 73 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 23 comments



"Beginning construction without all of the financing in place represents a strategic gamble by the rail authority, and by Mr. Brown, that once enough work is completed, future leaders will be loath to walk away from the project and leave a landscape of unfinished pillars, viaducts, bridges and track beds. Faced with reduced resources, the authority has altered its plans, and is now focused on finishing a 119-mile stretch of track from Bakersfield to Madera by 2022."

This is political blackmail. The project is now more than twice the price what the voters approved, yet construction is continuing on disconnected bits in the easy to build flatness of Central Valley, all to make sure the construction companies and their workers have something to do. What about the environmental impact if the train is never finished? What about moving people out of the way? What about having ugly concrete columns stand for decades within a beautiful region doing nothing? Jobs, jobs, jobs, and money is the answer.


> What about the environmental impact if the train is never finished?

And what about the environmental impact of not building it and instead insisting in expanding highways with a dozen of lanes perpetually gridlocked by countless gas guzzlers?


My "what if" question was about a train line that is never finished. An unfinished train line doesn't carry trains and doesn't move passengers. It doesn't decongest highways of traffic either. Its role will probably be only as a monument to a certain type of politics.

On a side note, it's really hard to argue against people's limitless imaginations.


Now that I think about it using my endless imagination, the concrete pillars may serve as platforms for contemporary art installations. When that becomes reality, the politicians in California will be patting themselves on the back about how they turned lemons into lemonade, creating the world's largest sculpture garden. Roads will have to be built to reach the sculptures so the citizens can view them. Holes will probably be drilled into the concrete columns to provide a habitat for native birds and falcons will build nests on top. It may be a win for the environment, who knows?


There isn't anything in the article about the "product-market fit" of California's speed rail, which I'm not familiar with: who and what are the use cases for the rail?

In Spain, with 2000 miles worth and another 1200 under construction (making it second only to China in total length[1]), a few of the lines goals were to enable high speed daily commutes from way outside the city limits. It works, at least to some extent, with people from cities up to 150 miles from Madrid commuting in and out daily in 30 - 50 min. Same happens in Japan, afaik. This really opens up densely populated cities with scarce/expensive housing, reducing inflationary pressures that often threaten to damage the local economy.

To me improving the effective housing radius of large metro areas is the crucial ROI any government should be pursuing, be it with rail, hyperloop...

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_high-speed_railway_lin...


The California rail links cities together. Here's the map: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c5/Cahsr_ma...

There are a few stops near San Francisco and Los Angeles, but those areas would be better served through improving existing commuter rail, which is slow and has many other issues that limit its usage.


The use case for California rail is for rural lawmakers to use their structural legislative advantage to get the big cities to pay for their larger towns to get economically connected to them.


The Republicans are doing everything in their power to sabotage this project. They couldn't convince the people to vote against it, so now they're going to knock it all down like a child that doesn't want to share their toys. Nobody wins.


But what the voters were convinced of isn't what is going to happen. That's the work of politicians who know how to do their jobs right.


Even the LA Times warned about this back in March[1]. The problem with many big government projects is that politicians love to cut ribbons and build legacies. Even the routes the projects follow are more determined by political needs than real needs. So even when costs explode it takes changes in the top levels of government to reign projects in or even cancel them.

When initially announced many critics stated that the costs would be double if not more and were constantly mocked. However it cannot be ignored that it is not just the cost to build that is important but maintenance will be in the billions. Just the rail systems many cities use across the US have deferred maintenance totaling over one hundred billion dollars combined.

With regards to nations who truly have a lot of established high speed rail, while the average Japanese traveler will have nearly two thousand miles of rail travel only about twenty percent is across high speed rail. When it comes to freight less than fiver percent moves by rail in Japan with the rest by highway and other. In the US over a third of all freight moves by rail versus less than a quarter by road.

tl;dr Politicians love their legacies and reality has little input. heavy rail systems are incredibly expensive to build out and maintain

[1] http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-bullet-train-c...


You’d think the United States could break into the top 20 high-speed rail.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_high-speed_railway_l...

China is up to almost 16,000 miles of track.

The fact that we’re incapable of building projects like this more affordably must be hurting our economy.


Well, in America almost everyone has a car and there's a road system that will take you anywhere you want to go. Americans don't like public transport overall, for reasons such as privacy, being able to play your music over the speakers, not having to smell the person next to you, having an interior you choose, taking the route you choose, being able to stop at Wendy's when you want, leaving to go and coming back on your own time rather than the train's... This list is much longer in reality. Plus there are planes for long distance which are already cheaper to fly San Francisco to LA than the ticket on the yet to be built train.


Americans don't like public transport overall

That, and probably the unwillingness to fund public infrastructure projects with tax money. Which, unfortunately, is inevitable with projects of such magnitude.

Well, in America almost everyone has a car and there's a road system that will take you anywhere you want to go

That's not different than any European country, which offers high speed rail (or a dense, interconnected rail system where HSR is not really viable, like Switzerland).

If anything and in my experience roads are usually better maintained in Europe. But that's probably the same problem. Maintenance costs (tax) money and that seems to be a dirty word to a lot of Americans.


You're wrong about car ownership in Europe vs U.S.

In America there's basically 1 car per person, in Europe there's one car per two persons.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_vehicles_...

The statistics come from different sources and times, but that's what I have to work with and I don't think the true numbers are much different from this.

It's also important to note that the culture in America is quite different in Europe regarding personal space, freedom to drive endlessly and on your own time, and having the place to do these things. Europeans are used to adjusting themselves to the train's schedule, leaving the party because the last train is coming, standing on the platform and waiting for it to arrive, and cancelling plans when the train drivers union decides to go on strike. These things frustrate an American, and that is because cars have been around for about 100 years in America and people have come to expect the freedoms that cars bring them.


> ... people have come to expect the freedoms that cars bring them

this idea has some truth, but ... with higher population densities and traffic, the amount of freedom a private car offers diminishes significantly.

if the rules of the road were changed in California -- if taxes, fees, insurance and fuel costs went high enough, if metered lanes on freeways charged enough, individual car ownership would become much less desirable, even to Americans.

people, even US people, would adapt and the whole system might finally be arranged so that commuters could arrive at work on a reliable time schedule.


Again, hard to argue against wild speculation. The train is being built within our current reality and people's desires are part of that reality. Arguably, the freedom that cars provide is an incredibly powerful and beneficial thing for the happiness of Americans.


I'm not speculating about this: I and thousands of daily commuters have noticed that driving a car on the Hollywood freeway in rush hour does not feel like an experience of freedom.

At least some of those commuters find the Metro red line to downtown, which runs on a fairly reliable schedule, arrives more quickly and does feel like an experience of freedom, by comparison.

Another non speculative observation: at least some Americans who move to NYC find that selling their car is a liberating experience.

Also, not having a car, is, in some ways a way to gain some freedom: insurance and maintenance burdens decrease, time and effort to park the vehicle are eliminated, etc


This basically a chicken and egg dilemma. In some cities of US, like LA, you can't live without a car. If there is a convenient public transportation, I would prefer to take subway if the daily commute is more than 1 hour.


meanwhile, for the travel less than 1000 miles, I would prefer high speed train instead of flight, or driving by myself. As by train, it has more advantage, like comfortable seat than flight, less stressful than driving, closer to destination etc, if you have any experience by traveling with HST, you would know that. Most Chinese travel between Beijing and Shanghai, two biggest and busiest cities in China, have already proved that.


> The fact that we’re incapable of building projects like this more affordably must be hurting our economy.

IMHO, that's the really interesting story.

In general, in the US, because of the structure of local politics, the bidding process, corporate and union expertise at larding public works projects, delays related to eminent domain disputes, etc these projects are far more expensive than they are in other countries -- even old Western European social democracies like France.


> However it cannot be ignored that it is not just the cost to build that is important but maintenance will be in the billions.

The same argument can be said about roads and ports and airports. Yes, infrastructure requires maintenance. So what?

> With regards to nations who truly have a lot of established high speed rail, while the average Japanese traveler will have nearly two thousand miles of rail travel only about twenty percent is across high speed rail.

I fail to see the relevance of that statement. Yes, nations that have a long railway history still haven't replaced some lines with high-speed lines. So what?

Meanwhile, there are plenty of developed nations that have high-speed railway lines even in old suburban corridors. Yes, people do commute in TGVs every single day. Is that because they are fancy or whimsical? No, because technology has evolved in the past half century so that it's trivial to build a train capable of travelling at over 220km/h and they live in geographically convenient areas where building high-speed lines doesn't involve building many tunnels and bridges.


Isn’t the prop to have this train passed by people? Why are you bringing politicians into it?


The politicians did the lying about how much it will cost, how fast it will go, how necessary it is, and when it will be built. And they made sure the referendum with all those lies and benefits for special interest groups happened.




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