The Pros and Cons of California’s High-Speed Rail Project

The Pros and Cons of California’s High-Speed Rail Project

Could America have 520 miles of high-speed rail by 2029? That’s the vision proposed by the California High-Speed Rail Authority.  Just as Amtrak has a plan to revitalize Washington D.C.’s Union Station, the California High-Speed Rail Authority: the entity responsible for planning, designing, building, and operating what will be America’s first high-speed rail system. The initial phase of construction will connect San Francisco with the Los Angeles basin. Eventually, the system will extend to reach from Sacramento to San Diego, with up to 24 stations along 800 miles of track.

Like all projects that are the first of their kind, the California High-Speed Rail Project has attracted a great deal of comment, with both supporters and critics of the scheme weighing in regularly. Here is an overview of the major talking points of both sides.

What Is high-Speed Rail?

Now in wide use throughout Europe and parts of Asia, high-speed rail was first developed in the mid-1960s in Japan. According to a comprehensive definition created by the European Union, high-speed rail is a system in which dedicated track and rolling stock are built or upgraded to safely handle speeds in excess of 155 mph.

Pros of California High-Speed Rail.

1. Environmental benefits—Cleaner than automobile or air transportation, high-speed trains have the potential to lower carbon dioxide emissions and help California to meet its aggressive greenhouse gas reduction goals while at the same time supporting the increasing travel demands of a growing population. By 2040, the rail system is expected to reduce the annual amount of vehicle miles traveled on California highways by 4 billion, thus preventing 3 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year.

2. Economic benefits—As a necessary transportation option that will allow for more compact, less car-centered growth in the system’s station cities, high-speed rail can be a vital catalyst for future economic growth throughout the state. A high-speed system can also increase the viability of intraregional transit by bringing with it strength and improvements to regional intercity rail and commuter rail. In addition, the development and construction of California’s high-speed system is expected to contribute significantly to new job creation in the state.

3. Improved traveler mobility and experience—High-speed rail can serve as the backbone for a comprehensive, sustainable mobility system. Historic train stations are often central hubs within urban public transit networks, thus making them easily accessible by transit or by other “last-mile” modes, such as car sharing or bicycles. More trips made by rail as opposed to automobiles will also help reduce congestion and save travel time. Finally, thanks to more legroom, space, and freedom of movement than cars or planes, traveling by train is usually considered to be one of the most comfortable ways to travel. This helps passengers make more productive use of their travel time.

Cons of California High-Speed Rail.

1. Cost—Critics of the proposed high-speed rail system in California claim that the project is too expensive. Moreover, concerns have also been raised that costs for the project have been underestimated, while revenues from potential ridership have been overestimated. In addition, many believe that the prospects of the California High-Speed Rail Authority for securing the necessary funding are not strong.

2. Poorly sited—The geography of California’s Central Valley, where project construction is beginning, may not be a suitable site for a high-speed rail line. The cities along that route segment are relatively small, without the high population concentrations or proximity between cities that are usually key to the success of high-speed trains.

3. Not enough support or potential ridership—One frequently-cited claim is that California’s high-speed rail project has not garnered the levels of political and popular support necessary for such an ambitious and costly undertaking. In addition, there are concerns that, beyond questions of geography, the project is not likely to generate sufficient ridership. Critics cite relatively low gasoline prices and a public that is not accustomed to traveling by train as two elements not typically associated with economically viable high-speed rail systems. It is also important to consider the competition factor from California’s well-developed regional air service network, which interregional travelers, who may not be inclined to switch transportation modes, already use heavily.

4. High-speed rail is outdated technology—Interestingly, some critics contend that what is labeled as an innovative project by many is in fact not innovative enough. As an older technology, high-speed rail may not prove to be as transformative as Californians want, given the state’s role as a global center of groundbreaking technological advances. While not necessarily questioning the fact that the state needs new mass transportation options beyond planes and automobiles, some believe that the best way forward lies in more cutting-edge developments, such as the proposal advanced in 2013 by Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla Motors, for a high-speed ground transport system called the “Hyperloop.”


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