Washington, California, and the Curious Case of the Railway to Somewhere

» California’s fast train network should be built, but can its backers maneuver around the difficult federal grant system that is supposed to fund it?

Here’s a little-known fact about California’s geography: The Central Valley, believe it or not, is situated between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

All kidding aside, the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s choice of the Fresno-Bakersfield route for the system’s first construction phase has produced a flurry of criticism, most recently from the California Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO, a sort of CBO for California). The LAO released a report this week that suggests that the project be reevaluated, perhaps by being absorbed into Caltrans (the state department of transportation) or possibly by being refocused on other initial corridors, such as Los Angeles to Anaheim or San Francisco to San Jose, which could act as improved commuter rail corridors if the whole system were never completed.

The report has its inaccuracies and parts of it deserve the skewering Robert Cruickshank provided it. Most significantly, the notion repeated by the report that faced with limited funds it is “more realistic” to focus on shorter corridors within metropolitan areas rather than between them completely misunderstands the value of high-speed rail.

The stretch through the Central Valley — along which trains will travel at 220 mph — is the crucial investment for a fast train system in the state. By allowing trains to accelerate to extremely fast speeds not possible within metropolitan areas, the system can produce true time savings over automobile and air alternatives.* Without the Central Valley link, the network would simply be a series of improved commuter lines.