Of all forms of surface transportation, the location of high-speed rail tracks and facilities is most critical. Operation at speed of 200 to 300 miles per hour, every impact and effect, on the environments through which they pass, as well as, on the high speed trains and track systems themselves, is magnified. Most of the impacts of such high-speed operation of massive passenger trains, operating at speeds exceeding those of landing jet aircraft, can only be mitigated by separation, or isolation of the trains’ tracks from virtually all other settings and environments. While the impacts and influences of freight and passenger trains have been dealt with over the past century by essentially building around, or shielding train operations from surrounding development and human activity settings, and by protecting vehicles and pedestrians crossing tracks from collisions with passing trains, the vastly greater speeds at which high-speed trains operate threaten to render historic mitigation and safety mechanisms ineffectual.
Defining the state of railroad engineering, high-speed trains successfully operate in Europeans and Asian countries; providing the highest quality and most effective surface transportation available between distant urban areas up to seven hundred miles apart. A distinctive characteristic of all high-speed rail systems and services, including magnetic levitation, is that none of the high-speed trains enter or pass through urbanized areas. Notwithstanding the significant differences in governmental authority and structure among countries in which high-speed rail services have been implemented, the location of tracks and operations have been consistently limited to routes and environments outside cities, suburbs and other urbanized settings. This is clearly in recognition of, and deference to the fact that such high-speed operation of trains at grade elevation is incompatible with most aspects of urban life.
Adherence to environmental legislation and restrictions of the United States and the State of California should be expected to significantly limit the performance and location of high-speed trains in all environmental settings and situations. Proposed high-speed rail routes through urbanized areas of Los Angeles and Orange Counties will, inevitably, be restricted to operating speeds well below 100 miles per hour; and most likely below 60 miles per hour, throughout the entire route between Los Angeles Union Station and anywhere in Orange County. Proposals to begin a Los Angeles to Sacramento high-speed train service in either the high desert or the San Joaquin Valley, some fifty miles north of downtown Los Angeles, is likely due to a combination of two factors. As is the case with all other high-speed train services, the proposed Los Angeles-Sacramento route cannot possibly pass through the urbanized areas of Los Angeles, Hollywood or the San Fernando Valley. A second impediment to the high-speed train’s path lies in the mountainous terrain separating Los Angeles from the San Joaquin Valley route to Sacramento. Traversing the mountains and elevations of the high desert between the Los Angeles basin and the San Joaquin Valley would impose significant difficulty and expense, with little economic benefit to a high-speed rail system that would be limited to relatively low-speed operation between greater Los Angeles and the valley. Simple upgrading of existing railroad tracks and rights of way along chosen high-speed routes is not feasible, due to the significantly greater engineering, operational and environmental requirements of high-speed rail systems.
The most recent, and most curious proposal to begin construction of the first segment of the California high-speed rail system with a 54-mile section that would connect two Central Valley small towns has been described in news media as “a train to nowhere”. Such incoherent planning, design and organization characterize every aspect of the project, eliciting official questions and challenges regarding the lack of a clear financial plan, business model, management concept, public relations program or realistic projections of ridership, revenue, costs or sources of funding. The High-Speed Rail Authority’s efforts to avoid all urbanized or developed settings have led to the first segment’s route swinging across some fifty miles of orchards and farmland, in order to avoid the City of Hanford’s objection to running the high-speed rails through the historically preserved center of town, has raised strong opposition from farmers who would have their land and farms disrupted by the random diagonal swaths that the 100-120 foot rights of way and impenetrable raised rail bed would impose on their land.
More focused scrutiny of the historical planning and underlying motivations of high-speed rail promoters and investors reveals decades of speculative profiteering and political manipulation that has generated tens of millions of dollars in business and equities growth, contracts and services among a handful of infrastructure engineering and construction companies prior to breaking ground on a single US high-speed rail project. The California High-Speed Rail Authority has spent nearly $1 billion of its initial $10 billion voter-approved funding, and has tentatively secured several billion additional dollars of federal high-speed rail commitments before groundbreaking on any part of the proposed 800-mile rail system. The initial $4.15 billion allocated to complete a 54-mile section of track between the town of Corcoran and the nearly extinct town of Borden will, reportedly, not include the electrical distribution equipment to power the trains, or the trains themselves. Further informed analysis of the project broaches the possibility that the remote stretch of track may never host high-speed trains at all, but will defer to some version of Amtrak’s fastest trains; making the $75 million per mile section of train track among the most expensive ever developed on open, flat land. Extrapolating this baseline cost to the entire 800-mile planned high-speed network would require revision of rail development costs to a minimum of $60 billion, and overall cost of system completion at $100 billion or more.
The proposed location of continuous earthen rail bed in 100-120 foot right of way swaths diagonally bisecting some of California’s, and the world’s most productive farmlands would render the farms and orchards unworkable, according to the public complaints of landowners in the path of the first section of the California high-speed train. Believing that they had found a location least likely to be negatively impacted by high-speed rail development, planners will have to consider a new range of disruptive impacts and mitigation measures in order to proceed with plans to build the first leg of the high-speed system.
*Run planned CA Valley HSR route video