California’s $113 Billion Bullet Train to Nowhere

In 1959, 14 years after Japanese officials surrendered ending WWII, Japanese officials committed to building a bullet train. The roughly 320 miles of high-speed track was to run from Toyko to Osaka and was to coincide with the 1964 Olympics. It opened just days before the Olympics at a cost of about 80 Million dollars. Since then, Japan has built fast rail trains running from several prefectures with another line, from Tokyo to Nogawa and then Osaka, by 2027. This next iteration of a bullet train will run at an astonishing 300 miles an hour. It’s astounding how efficient Japan’s bullet trains are, and how safe. In the 50 years, they have been running there have been no fatalities.

The fastest train in America is an Amtrak which tops out at around 100MPH. In a 14-year span, Amtrak had 222 deaths.

The Sunday New York Times contained an article on California’s boondoggle of a bullet train.

Californians passed a bond initiative in 2008 to build a bullet train. The track was to run from Los Angeles to San Francisco at a projected cost of $33 billion. It was anticipated to complete in 2020. How fast is California’s bullet train? It travels at zero miles per hour. It hasn’t been built. The projected cost went from $33 billion to $113 billion, and only the most Pollyannaish politicians claim that California will have a bullet train anytime soon if ever

Why hasn’t it been built? Dysfunctional California politics. Experts in building bullet trains were brought in. According to the New York Times:

“SNCF, the French national railroad, was among bullet train operators from Europe and Japan that came to California in the early 2000s with hopes of getting a contract to help develop the system.”

But SNCF backed out in 2011. Executives saw cronyism and political potholes everywhere. Instead, SNCF went to Morocco. Within six years it had completed Morocco’s bullet train line. They didn’t return to California, nor would it ever. There is too much waste and indecision in California. The California project is so dysfunctional that California was issuing and accepting bid contracts before they had acquired the land to build on. Farmers in the central valley were not that keen on having their land split by an elevated rail line. They sued and that added to the delay and layered on more billions.

Then there were route changes. SNCF recommended a direct line from LA to San Francisco. That made sense and it is clear that is what the bond issuance was for. The politicians said no.

An LA County Supervisor wanted the train to run through his district which included the upper Mojave desert, and the city of Palmdale. For those unfamiliar with Southern California that change required a northern jag of an added 41 miles of extra line. Costs increased. More time wasted. It added an additional $8 billion to the price tag. Right now the State is spending about 1.8 Million per day. On what almost $2 million per day is being spent, is anyone’s guess. Yes, there are crews working and concrete being poured in the Central Valley but what is the end game? If you were to ask people who left the project years ago out of frustration, the project is going nowhere fast.

Where is California’s bullet train now? Still almost entirely on paper. The New York Times article included an artist’s rendition of the bullet train flying down the line in the middle of desert land. In the background are wind turbines. Fittingly, the rendition has one of the rail line pillars buried smack in the middle of a road. It seems an appropriate illustration of this boondoggle.

If you were to ask California’s Governor, Gavin Newsom, the project is proceeding at pace. There is a “starter” line in the middle of the state that might, and might not be completed for servicing one of the intended endpoints – that being San Francisco. Silicon Valley billionaires want the rail line so employees, priced out of the Bay area could buy or rent in the middle of the state and commute to work. What is the chance that a bullet train will service Los Angeles to San Francisco and points between? About the speed of California’s Bullet Train.


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