News

Editorial: Don't give up on rail

As high-speed rail project is scaled back, leaders should look for new options

It is hard to argue with Gov. Gavin Newsom's decision to abandon the original vision for a high-speed rail system enabling travel between San Francisco and Los Angeles in just two hours and 40 minutes.

The $77 billion project, originally estimated to cost $44 billion, was already on life support when State Auditor Elaine Howle released a blistering report in November entitled "California High-Speed Rail Authority: Its flawed decision-making and poor contract management have contributed to billions in cost overruns and delays in the system's construction."

The auditor found that the rail authority rushed the construction-planning process, didn't adequately oversee contractors and consultants and began construction before needed land was acquired and agreements with local government and railroad operators completed. The project had become a pipe dream, and even supporters had soured on its prospects for delivering what had been promised.

Newsom had little choice but to scale back the project to a route between Bakersfield and Merced and abandon any pretense that high-speed rail would eventually connect San Francisco and Los Angeles.

When voters approved the high-speed rail proposal in November 2008 through Proposition 1A, California and the rest of the nation were in the midst of the Great Recession following the collapse of financial markets two months earlier. The hugely ambitious infrastructure project had strong support from unions, elected officials, environmentalists, the Obama administration and 53 percent of California voters. But as the price tag and bureaucratic miscues skyrocketed and no private investment surfaced, the dream became an albatross.

Back in late 2008 and 2009, local highways flowed at the speed limit even at rush hour. Commute times were reasonable. Housing prices beyond the Midpeninsula weren't anything like what they are today, and employees commuting from places like Tracy or Merced were few and far between. Google, Facebook and other tech companies employed a fraction of the people they do today.

More than 10 years later, the transportation needs of our region are dramatically different and the original vision for a modern rail system needs to be re-invented, not thrown out. The scaling back of high-speed rail is an opportunity to study and build a system that addresses real problems affecting average people instead of providing a service that air travel already handles at a competitive price.

Silicon Valley and the Central Valley desperately need to be better connected, both to serve the thousands of people who are commuting tremendous distances to jobs here and to spread the economic successes of our region to places like Modesto, Merced and Fresno. Making these Central Valley cities more accessible will help them attract companies and employees that we no longer have room for here, and it will allow growth to occur in areas of inexpensive housing and an abundance of available workers.

Fresno's population is now well over a half million, more than Sacramento. Modesto has more than 215,000 residents; Merced 83,000 and Turlock 74,000. Yet they remain largely detached from our strong California coastal economy.

The quality of life for workers who spend up to five hours or more a day commuting, largely driving alone, to Silicon Valley is intolerable, inhumane and unsustainable. It leads to unhappy employees, families and employers, high turnover and little or no time for community connections, attending school events or coaching kids' sports teams.

The success of the ACE (Altamont Corridor Express) train that connects Stockton with San Jose over the Altamont Pass shows what is possible even on tracks shared with freight trains and with travel times of almost two hours between Tracy and San Jose.

A modern, dedicated and faster rail system, whether high-speed or not, that connects our region with the Central Valley deserves careful study while construction proceeds on the 160-mile stretch of the scaled back high-speed-rail project between Bakersfield and Merced.

By continuing to allow massive amounts of new office development in the Bay Area with less housing than those new developments require, we make our already dire regional transportation and housing crisis steadily worse. Our political and corporate leaders need to formulate a realistic vision and conduct a feasibility study for a rail system that will eventually connect the south Bay with high-speed rail in Merced. Let's not let the failure of the original vision for a full north-to-south high-speed-rail project stop us from seeking rail solutions to the transportation crisis we face today.

Related content:

Newsom scales back high-speed-rail plans

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Comments

31 people like this
Posted by Ms. Burton
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 22, 2019 at 8:57 am

from the other thread:

During the same time China has built 18,000 miles of high speed rail.


13 people like this
Posted by No Time To Wait For Others
a resident of another community
on Feb 22, 2019 at 10:49 am

If the train was non-stop SF>LA maybe. If not, I'd rather fly out.

Stopping along the way for others to board or disembark is a waste of my valuable time.

And time is money. Don't ever forget that.


22 people like this
Posted by Too busy
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 22, 2019 at 11:37 am


Leaders too busy helping developers cash in on the successes of what is now the past. Developers are greedy and don’t to pay for anything except elections, and to keep a theater going at City Hall and Sacramento

Trust is broken

Can’t even build a bike bridge and now all eyes are on Cubberley

Nobody’s home


51 people like this
Posted by Robert Cronin
a resident of Menlo Park
on Feb 22, 2019 at 11:42 am

My concern is that this is just one more bit of evidence that we have become the country that used to know how. Completing big projects in time and at least not grossly over budget has become a thing of the past. I think that some of this is the fault of NIH (Not Invented Here) syndrome. If the high speed rail authority had just awarded a contract to SNCF, the French national railroad operator, the project would be well on its way to completion. Experience counts.


28 people like this
Posted by Joseph E. Davis
a resident of Woodside
on Feb 22, 2019 at 11:48 am

The absurd expense of government run infrastructure projects is the entire point. These projects exist to funnel money to connected consultants, contractors, and their unions. Whether the taxpayer or citizen gets value for the dollar is absolutely the last consideration.

Our government is very low in accountability and performance, which is why it is hard to understand why so many people clamor for it to take over more and more things.


15 people like this
Posted by What Will They Do Next
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 22, 2019 at 11:53 am

What Will They Do Next is a registered user.

High Speed Rail was a DOA boondoggle to begin with. It'll never get completed and no one will care. Planes are faster and cheaper from S.J./S.F. to L.A. No Time To Wait For Others seems to have it figured out. Time is money for many.


13 people like this
Posted by NeilsonBuchanan
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 22, 2019 at 12:16 pm

NeilsonBuchanan is a registered user.

How about a bold new policy for commercial development? Pause and plan!


47 people like this
Posted by Concerned/yet hopeful
a resident of Gunn High School
on Feb 22, 2019 at 1:18 pm

This is a great editorial. Public transportation that is both efficient and effective is needed more now than ever before in our region for myriad reasons from reducing sitting in the car wasting time and fuel commuting to reducing urban sprawl and climate change concerns. An good transportation system would concentrate housing in the transportation zones, thus increasing the efficiency of the entire transportation system. It is a win-win but we have to be brave enough to do it!


18 people like this
Posted by Sunshine
a resident of University South
on Feb 22, 2019 at 3:33 pm

The US should be pushing rail transit more.l Rail is the most energy efficient way to move people from one place to another, especially over long distances.
Greenhouse gasses are our largest problem that will affect the infrastructure and air quality for many years. Perhaps when you have permanently smelly, gray skies and seaside property, you may realize the importance of transportation energy efficiency. WE need rail travel that is convenient and effective because it is the one sure way to cut CO2 emissions.


3 people like this
Posted by Leslie
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 22, 2019 at 6:15 pm

The editorial makes some interesting points. Connecting the Santa Clara valley with the Central Valley by rail is an idea worth looking into.

Guess what, folks — Merced and Bakersfield are already connected by rail! The route is used by Amtrak for its San Joaquin trains. No need to spend millions more on land acquisition and rail construction. So it's not high speed, but who's in THAT big a hurry to get to Bakersfield anyway?

In addition, it seems it wouldn't take much to connect ACE (mentioned in the article) to the Merced - Bakersfield line at, say, Manteca. ACE connects San Jose with Stockton and is a going concern, i.e. an operating railroad. This would give us rail connectivity between Silicon Valley and the Central Valley using the existing rail infrastructure.


48 people like this
Posted by PhilB
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Feb 22, 2019 at 6:21 pm

PhilB is a registered user.

This action does nothing to solve the long-term problem, which is how to support the growth of California's economy. Do we build some sort of "high speed" rail, or do we build more and more freeway lanes,AND more airport runways. That new runway at SFO will have to extend out into the Bay. Nowhere else to go.

There are some hard choices ahead, and doing nothing is not one of them. Doing nothing means you want the 24-hour congestion you find in LA or on the NJ Turnpike, becoming more and more widespread. That plus lots more air pollution.

Again, doing nothing or pretending that "private companies" can alone solve this problem, those are choices of people in denial.


3 people like this
Posted by Leslie
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 22, 2019 at 6:35 pm

"This action does nothing"

If you're referring to the idea to extend ACE to the Merced - Bakersfield route, quite the contrary. It is the first step toward connecting Silicon Valley and the Central Valley using largely existing rail infrastructure, and could be done fairly expediently.

It certainly has more utility than providing a high-speed train trip from San Francisco to Disneyland.


11 people like this
Posted by Me 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 22, 2019 at 8:45 pm

"do we build more and more freeway lanes,AND more airport runways. That new runway at SFO will have to extend out into the Bay. Nowhere else to go."

Jeez. This talking point still out there? There's no need to build new runways. First, there's plenty of capacity at OAK and SJC. Furthermore, all planes between the Bay Area and the Southland are narrow body aircraft (regional jets, 737s and A320s). If there's enough demand, airlines can up-gauge aircraft to meet demand without new runways. Japan, the land of the Shinkansen, still flies wide body aircraft (used to be 747-400Ds, now 777-300s) between major cities.

We have a long way to go before we need new runways to travel between LA and Bay Area.

Also, seriously - people still think HSR as a commuting train? Not very green of you to encourage sprawl into the Central Valley. Furthermore, the reality is that most of people commuting from the Central Valley are blue collar folks that won't pay the fares to commute by train, not to mention that we don't have the transit network to help them get them to their job in the Bay Area. The same problem that plagues commuting to/from the peninsula on Caltrain.

HSR is/was a white elephant. Give it up.


Like this comment
Posted by Yup on rail
a resident of Community Center
on Feb 22, 2019 at 9:09 pm

Build it. And a lot more transportation infrastructure.


7 people like this
Posted by No on planes
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Feb 22, 2019 at 9:36 pm

No on planes is a registered user.

We cannot keep flying in this warming world. Emissions need to be a topmost consideration.

I'd like to see a cost comparison of train and high-speed electric buses. Train infrastructure is costly ($$$ and emissions). We know how to add lanes to highways. Can we do that, a single dedicated high-speed lane, buses only, change directions at 1pm? Buses can loop back in regular lanes as needed. Similar capacity to a train, cheaper than a train to build and operate (guessing), and lower emissions. Requires more manpower, though automation will help over time.

Potential concept here: Web Link


23 people like this
Posted by Gary
a resident of Mountain View
on Feb 23, 2019 at 2:21 am

Very well written article but California CEOs have another plan: SB 50. It would authorize developers to build residential highrises next to everyone's single-family home in urban and suburban California- including in Palo Alto - using existing streets for parking. It is last year's SB 827 a pig of a powergrab but with some lipstick added. The better approach, of course, would be to add jobs where there is available land for new (highrise or not) housing such as south Santa Clara County (or, I suppose, in the central valley). But the CEOs find it more inviting to just RUIN YOUR NEIGHBORHOODS TO ACCOMMODATE millions more of THEIR EMPLOYEES AND SUPPORT THEIR PROFIT AND PEROGATIVE.


6 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 23, 2019 at 10:39 am

The original problem here is choice of route. The state owns land on I-5 which is already carved out for transportation. Picking off privately owned land through eminent domain suggests other motives in this venture. Either use existing government owned land or get out of the way. Side note - I went to the original HSR meeting ages ago - the "people in charge" were going on a boondoggle at taxpayer's expense to visit all of the existing HSR projects in Europe and Asia. Then never heard from them again. Every project here requires a free trip to Europe.
Bottom line use existing rail routes or set up on I-5 - elevated rail system. Save a bundle. But that would be too easy and visible to gauge progress. Can't have that. This is all "shade and shine".


4 people like this
Posted by Leslie
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 23, 2019 at 12:31 pm

A rail tunnel is a non-trivial thing to begin with, but a 13.5-mile tunnel through the Pacheco Pass over a major earthquake fault no less, is sheer insanity and would be unfathomably expensive by the time it's finished.

Californians don't know how lucky they are that Gavin Newsom — somebody — came along just in time to pull the plug on this disaster before much more construction, such as this tunnel, could be built and Cash-and-Carry Jerry could squander even more taxpayer money.

Jerry Brown needs to spend the rest of his years wearing a straitjacket in a padded room in a comfortable retirement home, IMO.


42 people like this
Posted by @me2
a resident of another community
on Feb 23, 2019 at 2:02 pm

“ Furthermore, the reality is that most of people commuting from the Central Valley are blue collar folks that won't pay the fares to commute by train, not to mention that we don't have the transit network to help them get them to their job in the Bay Area. The same problem that plagues commuting to/from the peninsula on Caltrain. “

This comment is completely untrue.
Take a ride on ACERail sometime and educate yourself
Ridership is capacity with a massive VTA and corporate network of busses waiting at the Santa Clara station to shuttle folks to and from various high tech companies across SV.


7 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 23, 2019 at 5:09 pm

"My concern is that this is just one more bit of evidence that we have become the country that used to know how."

No, I aver it's a result of the Information Society. Everybody's occupied gathering information about a project; nobody gets around to building it. Toss in an arrogant ego tripping washed up politician to demolish any residual public trust (yes you, Diridon), and we're paralyzed.


Like this comment
Posted by Leslie
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 23, 2019 at 9:31 pm

"the 'people in charge' were going on a boondoggle at taxpayer's expense to visit all of the existing HSR projects in Europe and Asia. Then never heard from them again. Every project here requires a free trip to Europe."

Several years ago der Gubernator went on a HSR junket through Asia. He rode an HSR train in S. Korea and was impressed.

Now he's out of office and his trip had no lasting value for Californians. More taxpayer money pissed away on HSR with nothing to show for it.

Web Link


1 person likes this
Posted by Bunyip
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 24, 2019 at 7:39 am

In Silicon Valley you have to show a value proposition and unmet need. When amtrak ridership triples, then we have a need. Otherwise it's just wasted money into a technology looking to fill a need the at doesn't exist.


6 people like this
Posted by Leslie
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 24, 2019 at 9:40 am

"In Silicon Valley you have to show a value proposition and unmet need. When amtrak ridership triples, then we have a need. Otherwise it's just wasted money into a technology looking to fill a need the at doesn't exist."

Everywhere, not just silicon valley.

This is the crux of the HSR problem. CA HSR never established an unmet need. There are myriad ways to travel between S.F. and L.A. Throw Sacramento and San Diego into the mix of important cities which can be accessed by air or by auto. Fresno and Bakersfield to a lesser extent, but Merced?

In the worst case HSR wouldn't capture much market share and the trains would run below capacity and not take in enough fare revenue to break even.


2 people like this
Posted by Me 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 24, 2019 at 8:48 pm

"This comment is completely untrue.
Take a ride on ACERail sometime and educate yourself
Ridership is capacity with a massive VTA and corporate network of busses waiting at the Santa Clara station to shuttle folks to and from various high tech companies across SV."

Massive? Quantify massive. You must have lower standards than I do when it comes to public transportation.


42 people like this
Posted by @Me2
a resident of another community
on Feb 25, 2019 at 2:36 pm

Jeepers. Do your own homework.

At Santa Clara Station just the VTA managed busses alone (not including the private company busses, nor the carpools, taxis, rideshare, and Uber) meeting each trains morning arrival and afternoon departure include:

822 Gray Line - South Sunnyvale
- Zoran
- National Semiconductor
- Qualcomm
- Fujitsu
- AMD
- Trimble
- Applied Materials
- Yahoo
823 Green Line - North Santa Clara
- Abbott
- Coherent
- FileMaker
824 Orange Line - Mountain View/Palo Alto
- Microsoft
- Google
- Intuit
- Space Systems/Loral
825 Purple Line - West Milpitas
- Cisco
- Avaya
- McCarthy Ranch (Business Park)
826 Red Line - North Sunnyvale
- Net App
- Lockheed Martin
- Yahoo
- Aruba
- Harmonic
- Juniper Networks
827 Yellow Line - South Santa Clara
- Nortel
- Brocade
- AMD
- Yahoo
- Data Domain
- General Dynamics
- Synaptics
- NEC
- Nvidia
- Intel
- Applied Materials
828 Brown Line - North San Jose
- Cisco
- KLA-Tencor
- VTA
- Altera
Cadence
831 Violet Line - West Milpitas
- KLA Tencor
- Sandisk
- Optoma
- Linear Tech
- LSI

These busses run full and in many cases they run more than one for each line to accommodate all the riders. They are deducted lines running between the train station platform and the companies listed.

I highly recommend do some research before disparaging the qualifications and needs of people from the Central Valley and maligning transit systems about which you are uneducated and inexperienced.


37 people like this
Posted by @Me 2
a resident of another community
on Feb 25, 2019 at 2:51 pm

Me 2 said
“ the reality is that most of people commuting from the Central Valley are blue collar folks that won't pay the fares to commute by train, not to mention that we don't have the transit network to help them get them to their job in the Bay Area. “

"Me 2"'s comment is completely untrue.
As are most things "Me 2" says


25 people like this
Posted by Old Joe
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 25, 2019 at 4:47 pm

Me2 is just another example of Spoiled Silicon Valley bias. At least we haven’t heard his tired “the train is Victorian” argument lately. Now he’s moved onto eliteist comments and is saying “everybody else is too poor and uneducated to use a train so there is no need for one”.


27 people like this
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 25, 2019 at 7:13 pm

1929 - the high water mark for passenger-rail in America.

1969 - the hippy generation discovers passenger-rail while thumbing through the Whole Earth Catalog under the influence of mind altering substances and imprints on the belief that passenger-rail is the ONLY way to save the earth from the evil automobile.

2019 - zero emissions all electric automobiles are a practical reality. Passenger rail has been in decline for 90 years. CalHSR and HART collapse in a spectacular fireball of waste, corruption, and incompetence... and they still believe.

Passenger-rail isn't a transportation technology, it's a religion.


34 people like this
Posted by Ahemer
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Feb 26, 2019 at 7:28 am

“Passenger-rail isn't a transportation technology, it's a religion”
“It’s Victorian”
“It’s socialist”
Or as I like to call it “Nancy”

I love how labels advance a discussion.


21 people like this
Posted by sunshine
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 26, 2019 at 9:03 am

I think that much of the problem stems from nay-sayers who don't see that rail is the most energy efficient way to transport goods and people for long distances. Air is the least efficient way and leads to production of much more carbon dioxide per mile per pound of deliverable goods or people. Trucks also produce far more pollution than rail. Also rail can transport a much heavier load than a truck.
Usually when one calculates the actual time for a person starting from home to arrive at the destination, another home or place to stay or work, air transit takes longer than rail.
How fast the train travels is less important than that it keeps moving between stations and can travel at 65 miles per hour along the route. This means that for California the trains need to be able to travel the route with our having to pull over to let a freight train pass (often for several hours or more). What is needed is good quality rail bed and separate tracks for large cargo and passengers.
If you doubt the importance of rail for transit of goods and services visit France and Germany. The US could so something similar. At one time the US led in transporting goods and people. We have allowed the transportation system os languish and in some areas fail.


15 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 26, 2019 at 10:12 am

Posted by Ahem, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood

>> Passenger-rail isn't a transportation technology, it's a religion.

Actually, it is the single-occupancy vehicle that is a religion. Put 10 people in van-pool, and, you have something comparable to trains in overall efficiency. CO2/fossil-fuel consumption, land utilization, congestion, peak rush-hour delivery rate, safety-- I get it, none of these matter as much -to you- as that feeling you get surrounded by your steel box, accelerating on demand. It is your religion, and I'm sure that you will stick to it, but, the Victorian/Hippie/socialism/whatever arguments are refuted through simple arithmetic. Single-occupancy vehicles just don't add up for dense urban areas.



12 people like this
Posted by Electrified, Grade-separated Trains for the Peninsula
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Feb 26, 2019 at 11:27 am

What we need is electrified, grade-separated Caltrain across the Peninsula. We need it now. Get VTA out of the way. They are the enemy of any project that does not feed their coffers for BART and south Bay.

We need one, regional transportation agency that incorporates Caltrain, MTC and VTA. VTA, one of the worst-performing transit agencies in the nation, has proven itself time and again incapable of working cooperatively across the region. Any money that goes to them may as well be flushed away. We need broad, systemic solutions, including funding to move toward improving efficiency of the existing Caltrain line--and all transportation connectors to it.


13 people like this
Posted by Leslie
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 26, 2019 at 1:52 pm

"air transit takes longer than rail"

You've obviously never taken Amtrak. It is SLOW.

Are you kidding? 10 hours and 10 minutes from L.A. to S.J. via Amtrak. That's the scheduled time, from the moment it starts rolling out of Union Station to the moment it stops in SJC, and it assumes the train is on time.

Find me a flight that takes 10 hours to cover the same distance from departure to arrival. Time to get from your house to the train station/airport depends where you live.


Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Feb 26, 2019 at 2:21 pm

^ Still waiting for that Amtrak Coast Starlight from Seattle.


1 person likes this
Posted by We need an ACELA EXPRESS
a resident of another community
on Feb 26, 2019 at 2:24 pm

Boston > NYC, Acela Express is the only way to go. 3.5 hours, 220 miles
Sunnyvale > Downtown San Jose #22 VTA bus, 1 hour 10 min, 13 miles

Consiering all the money thrown at government agencies this is truly a sad commentary. At minimum we should have a train that runs from San Jose into SF at least every 20 minutes until 11 or midnight.


12 people like this
Posted by Leslie
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 26, 2019 at 4:15 pm

"At minimum we should have a train that runs from San Jose into SF at least every 20 minutes until 11 or midnight."

In case you hadn't heard, we have this thing called Caltrain. It's been around for over 150 years running trains between S.F. and S.J.

Acela is operated by Amtrak and runs on an existing electrified right of way. CA HSR was going to build its own brand-new ROW including a 13.5-mile tunnel through the Pacheco Pass at a cost of multi billions to CA taxpayers.

Note that private investors didn't go near CA HSR bonds, so the private financing never materialized.


8 people like this
Posted by Me 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 27, 2019 at 1:04 pm

"Spoiled Silicon Valley bias. At least we haven’t heard his tired “the train is Victorian” argument lately. Now he’s moved onto eliteist comments and is saying “everybody else is too poor and uneducated to use a train so there is no need for one"

Hilarious. I haven't used these words at all. I am a regular Caltrain rider, but also have my eyes wide open on the limitations of that service. Would I like a great public transportation system? Absolutely. But we simply don't have the structure (i.e. we are a vast suburb) to serve efficiently using rail ... or buses for that matter. VTA can't even service us effectively in Palo Alto to the point of pulling bus service completely.

"I think that much of the problem stems from nay-sayers who don't see that rail is the most energy efficient way to transport goods and people for long distances. Air is the least efficient way and leads to production of much more carbon dioxide per mile per pound of deliverable goods or people. Trucks also produce far more pollution than rail. Also rail can transport a much heavier load than a truck."

These are big assumptions here. Energy efficiency depends on what you energy you count. Concrete production is incredibly damaging to the environment and expends huge amounts of energy. And tons of new concrete is being laid in the Central Valley. Furthermore, bringing in goods into this discussion is a red herring. The majority (if not all) HSR is for passengers. No cargo.

"Usually when one calculates the actual time for a person starting from home to arrive at the destination, another home or place to stay or work, air transit takes longer than rail."

Let's see. I can leave my house in Palo Alto 6:30a to make a 10:00a meeting in Santa Monica with plenty of time flying SFO (or SJC) to LAX using Uber on both ends. How much faster can I do this using HSR? If it's not at least 50% faster, what's the point?


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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