It’s a myth that Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini made the trains run on time. It’s no exaggeration, though, to say California can’t even make its bullet train run at all.
The California high-speed rail has been delayed again. The first section, 119 miles through the Central Valley between Bakersfield and Madera, had been “on track,” if we may, to open in 2022. Looks like it won’t be happening until 2023 (six years later than initial expectations said it would be finished). And even if the leg is ready in two years, the cost of completion will be higher, $13.8 billion rather than the $12.4 billion of the previous forecast.
Nothing new here. The train has been bedeviled with delays and increasing costs from the start. It didn’t take long, a little more than a year, for the original cost estimate of $33 billion to swell to $43 billion. Then later, as much as $117 billion. A slimmed-down version was to have cost about $80 billion, but the price is creeping up again, reaching $100 billion just to link Los Angeles and San Francisco.
But what will $80 billion, or some portion of that, even bring? At times, it seems the CHSR will never carry a passenger. It has created more drama than daytime television. The project has produced a flow of bad news more constant and reliable than the construction timetable.
Recent events include the Bakersfield-to-Madera setback; a “blistering” letter from a contractor which alleges, according to the Los Angeles Times, “that a multitude of problems have remained unresolved for years”; and the possibility that – according to the Times, again – the entire operation “may run out of money even” before the “171-mile starter system between Bakersfield and Merced by 2028” is completed. In an apparent effort to keep things moving, “the California bullet train authority will seek a $4.1-billion appropriation to complete construction,” the Times said earlier this month.
At $89 million a mile, it is “the most expensive railway in the country,” a low point reached before a single locomotive wheel has touched a steel rail. Los Angeles won’t be connected for more than a decade, two years after Phase 1, linking Anaheim, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, was supposed to have been ready. Train testing won’t begin until 2026-27, and then put into service until 2030, eight years after the “Central Valley segment” was to have been up and running. Work on a 636-foot bridge in Madera County was shut down in November 2019 after nearly two dozen high-strength steel support cables began breaking, a problem the contractor has assumed responsibility for, and remains unfinished. The plan to lay down two tracks between Bakersfield and Merced has been revised – now there will be only a single track, which takes the “high-speed” out of “high-speed rail” if the bullet train has to move off the track and into a siding or station to let other trains pass, or has to slow to let other trains move off the single line.
And on it goes. Or doesn’t go.
In April 2012, Governing magazine listed the CHSR as one of the five largest public works projects in the country that is “in limbo.”
“It started off with the kind of heady promise and excitement that prompted comparisons to California’s most iconic infrastructure project, the Golden Gate Bridge,” said the magazine, also noting that “a recent poll showed that 59% of Californians would vote against the bond if they could do it again.”
It was a story that, somehow, could still be written today.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.