The Train That Doesn’t Track And Never Should
Don’t like the new projected cost of the California high-speed rail? Or miss the reports of the latest estimate? Don’t worry, another one will be along soon. They’re a lot like buses. They just keep on coming.
The draft of the California High Speed Rail Authority’s most recent biennial business plan says the cost of connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles with a bullet train will cost $105 billion, $5 billion more than the previous estimate. When voters approved Proposition 1A in 2008, the project they voted for was to cost $33 billion to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles, and eventually link Sacramento with San Diego. But that didn’t last. Estimates have stopped off at various stations since: $64 billion; $77 billion; $80 billion; $98 billion; and at one point $117 billion. There have been more changes than passengers, which at this time total zero.
Citizens for California High-Speed Rail Accountability complain “the program continues with minimal accountability or legitimate oversight,” which is hard to argue with, given how the project has languished while growing in costs. Even Gov. Gavin Newsom, in his 2019 State of the State address, admitted “there’s been too little oversight and not enough transparency.”
Construction is more than a decade behind schedule, fares are going to be steeper than first predicted, while ridership will be lower, as will travel speeds, which voters were told would reach 220 mph.
“Considering the dismal outlook for California High-Speed Rail, it’s no surprise the State of California has failed to obtain private investment for it – another empty promise made to voters in 2008,” say Citizens for California High-Speed Rail Accountability. “Only the politicians are willing to spend money – someone else’s money – on this obviously unprofitable project destined never to cross or penetrate a mountain range.”
The best outcome for the train would to be for the few overpasses and supports that have been built to show up decades later on “Mysteries of the Abandoned,” a Science Channel series in which “the world’s most incredible engineering projects are revisited to uncover why places full of mysteries and untold secrets are now abandoned ruins.”
There wouldn’t be much mystery, though. California’s high-speed rail is a perfect example of modern-day government projects, which are dragged down by waste; fraud; political agendas that choose winners and losers; political infighting; politicians’ egos; perverse incentives; top-down planning; labor agreements that inflate costs; and blind determination to raise monuments when there’s no need to build them.
It’s unlikely that California’s bullet train will ever be abandoned because politics requires decision makers to fall for the “sunk costs fallacy,” where they refuse to walk away from a poor investment into which resources have been poured, making a bad choice even worse. And it’s not as if officials and politicians are just now catching up to reality. It’s been obvious for years that the train is a loser. Unless a load of rational thinking suddenly comes down the tracks, a rarity in California politics since the turn of the century, it’s going to continue to be a wreck.