I have a question about the California High Speed Rail project. This post is inspired by Alon Levy's recent California high-speed rail post, but I've been wondering about it for over a year now. I've looked in the most obvious places (like the "Frequently Asked Questions" section of the California High Speed Rail Authority's website, and Wikipedia), but haven't found the answer.
So most of you have probably read the announcements that the initial segment of the high-speed rail project would be a 54-mile stretch of track between the towns of Corcoran (population 24,813) and Borden (which doesn't even have a population figure), at a cost of $4.15 billion. This was derided by the usual suspects as a "train to nowhere."
Being a big supporter of intercity rail, I was immediately ready to jump to the project's defense. No, the California High Speed Rail Authority couldn't be building a 200 mph shuttle to carry migrant strawberry pickers 65 miles. They're not even building it to go from Merced to Corcoran.
I assumed that the plan was simply to upgrade the San Joaquin route, so that these diesel passenger trains can move off the older, congested Santa Fe freight line and travel as fast as they can on a brand-new, dedicated, elevated, straight section of track. If that cuts the time from Corcoran to Madera from 1:19 to an hour, that's a nice improvement, right? It could win some hearts, and then the rest of the line can be upgraded south to Bakersfield and north to Modesto (at least), maybe shaving off another twenty minutes. Then they get some cash and electrify it from Oakland to Bakersfield, and then from Stockton to Sacramento. Then they worry about getting it to Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Several times I've been ready to make this argument in the comments to a blog post or news article, and I've stopped myself. I realized I don't know, and I don't want to speak for the California High Speed Rail Authority. I figured I'd look into it at some point.
Well, now I've looked into it, and whaaa... ? According to the Los Angeles Times, the tracks will not even run a farmworker shuttle. There will be no trains on them. At all. They will spend over four billion dollars on tracks that will just sit there.
The idea is that eventually the tracks will be extended to San Francisco and Los Angeles and electrified, and then the trains will run. Special high-speed electric trains, like they have on the TGV. But until then, nothing. No San Joaquins. No renting the tracks out as a temporary short cut for Santa Fe freight trains to raise a little cash. They will gather dust for at least two years.
Maybe the LA Times reporters were misinformed. Maybe the plan has changed since then. But I haven't seen anything to suggest that. The High Speed Rail Authority knows that there are lots of people out there who think that the plan is either an expensive farm shuttle or a set of empty tracks. If they were planning to use the tracks, I'm guessing they would put that out on their website. But they don't.
So my question to any California high speed rail followers is very simple. Is this really the plan? Are they really planning to spend four billion dollars and just let the tracks sit completely unused for years, while the parallel tracks are congested? Do you think this is okay? Thanks in advance for your answers.