Newsom Says High-Speed Rail Serving the Central Valley Is Not a “Train to Nowhere”

But he did NOT say he was abandoning the entire project

Then-Mayor and long-time HSR supporter Gavin Newsom on a photo-op with his wife and François Lacôte of the French TGV system during a trip to France. Photo: SF Mayor's office
Then-Mayor and long-time HSR supporter Gavin Newsom on a photo-op with his wife and François Lacôte of the French TGV system during a trip to France. Photo: SF Mayor's office

In his first State of the State speech this morning, Governor Gavin Newsom said he wanted to “get real” about the California High-Speed Rail Program.

“Let’s level about high-speed rail,” he said. “The project, as currently planned, would cost too much and take too long. There’s been too little oversight and not enough transparency.”

But, he reiterated, that does not mean it is time to end it. To those critics who say California should stop building it, he said, “Abandoning high-speed rail entirely means we will have wasted billions of dollars with nothing but broken promises and lawsuits to show for it.”

“And by the way,” he added, “I am not interested in sending $3.5 billion in federal funding back to Donald Trump. Because that’s what it would take.”

Even though there is currently no clear path for high-speed rail to connect Sacramento and San Diego, “let alone from San Francisco to L.A.,” he said. “We do have the capacity to complete a high-speed rail link between Merced and Bakersfield.”

Several news outlets have already interpreted his remarks to mean he wants to scale the project back to just the Central Valley, where construction has already begun and there are clear plans to complete the first segment. But that’s not what he said. He pledged to finish the environmental work on Phase 1 of the program–which would connect San Francisco to Anaheim–and continue to pursue federal funding to complete the entire project.

Newsom clapped back at critics who call a Central Valley project a “train to nowhere.” “I think that’s wrong, and I think that’s offensive,” he said. “The people of the Central Valley endure the worst air pollution in America, as well as some of the longest commutes. And they have suffered too many years of neglect from policymakers here in Sacramento. They deserve better.”

The cities of the Central Valley are, he said “more dynamic than many realize.” The region is renowned for agriculture, but is also “hungry for investment, a workforce eager for more training and good jobs…. who deserve a fair share of our state’s prosperity.”

“High-speed rail is more than a train project,” he said. As a tool for economic transformation, it could help “unlock the economic potential” and create the “backbone of a reinvigorated Central Valley.”

Meanwhile, he plans to make immediate governance changes. “We’re going to hold contractors and consultants accountable to explain how taxpayer dollars are spent – including change orders, cost overruns, even travel expenses. It’s going online, for everybody to see,” he said, calling it a “new day” for the program.

And he announced his pick for new chair of the California High Speed Rail Authority: Lenny Mendonca, who was recently appointed the governor’s economic development director.

The High-Speed Rail Program is a very big infrastructure project, and while critics are quick to point out that funding is not lined up to complete the entire statewide project, that was never the plan. Breaking it up into separate pieces, getting it started by doing what could be done most easily, and pursuing funding for each separate piece was part of the original vision for the project–even when California voters passed Prop 1A to get the project started.

Finishing the Central Valley portion would, as Newsom points out, bring huge benefits to state residents. And it would make the rest of the project–the trickier parts–a lot more likely to happen.

74 thoughts on Newsom Says High-Speed Rail Serving the Central Valley Is Not a “Train to Nowhere”

  1. I’ve had my GPS with me on the Milk Run from SanDiego north to Oceanside. This is just a regular train. I saw 70+mph go by on several occassions. Total run, with 8 stops, is 1 hour.
    110 is nothing new.
    The really HS rail I took in Europe was cruising at 300kph, call it 180mph. Now THAT’S fast.

  2. Merced to Bakersfield? Make your reservations now or their might not be any room on the train.
    I’d MUCH rather the $$ went to a SD/LA to Las Vegas HS Rail. Get the Casino group to put up 20% to 40% of the total funding needed. Use Existing I15 Right of Way.

  3. Also, my comment was specifically about ADDING the SP right-of-way to the ACE system so that from East Pleasanton where the right-of-way comes out of the residential area at Valley Avenue all the way to the California Aqueduct just west of Tracy it would be a two-main-track main line.

    I was not proposing double-tracking the WP line by widening the grade and doubling the bridges. That WOULD cost a bundle and run into lawsuits. The SP trackway was deeded to Alameda County when it was abandoned in favor of trackage rights on the adjacent WP, so it should be easily revived. Because it’s loopier it’s probably a couple of miles longer between the I-580 undercrossing and the aqueduct, but that’s small potatoes for passenger trains.

  4. I’m not advocating this for HSR. Of course you don’t want to run HSR trains on a 19th Century alignment over a Coast Range pass. I’m proposing this to give ACE the ability to run trains more frequently at the peak and a couple of runs during the middle of the day for family emergencies and bi-directional travel. It would cost roughly two to three million dollars per mile to re-ballast the SP right of way and put a modern concrete-tie trackway on it. There might be places where the grade would have to be grout injected and a couple of bridges would have to be replaced. There may be other relatively minor problems that would require remediation; I certainly don’t know every foot of it.

    But it’s there, relatively cheap to recover and, with similar treatment between Livermore and Pleasanton where the two lines are cheek-by-jowl, would double-track more than half the distance between the junction in Fremont where the ACE trains exit the freight main and Lathrop where uni-directional operation for freights begins. There is a siding between Sunol and the golf course in Fremont that could be extended for the full distance as well, producing another section of double track.

  5. Yes, there’s a RoW, but it’s poor. It’s largely single-tracked, it goes through towns that fought against tunnels under their downtown and it’s windy.

    So yes, suppose you could suffer through 5 years of lawsuits and double track the line and electrify it and still be stuck with a slow windy route. You can spend more money on lawsuits with NIMBY on straightening some curves and digging some tunnels, but you’re unlikely to get 100% of what you need.

    And then there’s UP which needs something to run trains on. You can’t just buy out their only route, so you’ll still have lots of freight on that route since RoW isn’t wide enough for 3 tracks.

    And after 10 years of uncertainty, you might some something viable that you can run on. Will it be shorter than Pacheco? Yes. Will it be faster? Maybe, maybe not.

    When one of the routes between Fremont on Tracy was abandoned, that was really the death knell for Altamont Alignment. If Alameda county had the foresight to buy that corridor and dedicate it for passenger service – like San Mateo bought up SP corridor for Caltrain – I can assure you that Altamont would be a better competitor and maybe even the current selected alignment.

  6. I said that it’s broken through Livermore. However, it’s the curves and grades east of there where using the old SP right of way would most add capacity. There’s no doubt that the SP has many more curves than does the WP, and it has a summit tunnel which would probably require remediation. But the two trackways are only about 700 feet apart just east of the Altamont Wind Farm Substation and the elevation doesn’t look to be too different. They have each crossed the California Aqueduct a bit to the east.

    The WP crosses over the SP trackway just north of I-580 at the extreme eastern edge of Livermore. There’s an empty hillside above the SP right of way which could be graded for an “interchange” track and enough room to double track the WP to the west of there. Or perhaps the connection could be made to the south of I-580; there’s plenty of fairly flat land there but the tracks are somewhat farther apart. The WP track has a long siding beginning at Greenville Road, and there is definitely room for a second track to the west of the western end of the siding, through Vasco Road station.

    The SP right-of-way, which has an industrial lead on it at this point, joins at Contractors Street and runs parallel as a double-track railroad to Ventura Avenue where the double-track ends. However, the graded trackway exists as far as the bridge over Murieta Boulevard but begins again on the other side of the “Arroyo”. A new bridge would be needed there.

    To the west it appears that the old WP(?) right of way still exists as a derelict spur. A new bridge would be required over Isabel Avenue to use it.

    It appears that through Pleasanton the existing right of way is too narrow for double tracking, at least to Bernal Avenue. However, there are similar stretches of single track on LA Metro’s San Bernardino line and trains are scheduled to use it sequentially.

    At the south end of the golf course in South Pleasanton there is adequate width to extend the siding that ends about a half mile to the south to the course, though that would require a new bridge over Pleasanton-Sunol Road.

    There is room to extend that siding to Sunol, but not through the town. So perhaps a single-track section from the west end of the tunnel to the east side of Sunol cannot be avoided. Fortunately, it is only a mile from the west portal of the tunnel to the separation of the freight main from the passenger line to San Jose.

    So this can’t be double track throughout, at least, not without some takings which are probably a non-starter and duplicating the tunnel. It would be possible to take the tourist railroad through Niles Canyon but that would be a loss.

    To be sure, this is nowhere near “HSR-quality” roadbed. Crossing at Altamont with HSR would require a base tunnel from Livermore to the substation area. But it’s a cheap way to add capacity over the grade so that more ACE trains can run at the peaks and they can run over a longer span of the day. There could be an agreement that the ACE trains all use the SP right of way except during peak hours when the tracks become WP in the peak direction, SP off-peak direction for all trains.

  7. “Flying is now faster and more efficient than a train…”

    Cost is another factor to keep an eye on. And as fossil fuel sources are exhausted we can expect the costs to fly to increase. And are you considering energy consumption in efficiency?

  8. Hah. You mean the trail that was built over that RoW? That opportunity is long gone. It’s practically through someone’s back yard all through the town – bisects the downtown Pleasanton. It’s things that like that which make the Altamont route not feasible.

  9. They’re not going to put it down the middle of I-5. The right of way is mostly assembled for paralleling the BNSF south of Fresno and the UP to the north. HSR doesn’t live and die for the end points; it serves a network as all rail transportation does. It needs to serve Bakersfield, Fresno, and Modesto directly.

  10. There’s the parallel SP trackway which could be revived as a double track for not much money, though it is broken through Livermore.

  11. Not faster than flying now and forever. This project would require electricity from what, solar power? Europe and Asia built their systems with taxpayers’ money and then subsidize them with more of same after they’re built. Voters were promised in 2008 that this project would not require taxpayer subsidy, which makes it a dead project walking, since that is clearly impossible. No HSR system in the world survives without public subsidy.

  12. Nearly all of the “overruns” are due to choices to build the most expensive LA and Bay Area approaches imaginable. Which indicates that real estate/fossil fuel interests worked to undermine the project from the inside. The change to the Pacheco Pass alignment in 2008 made San Jose the “winner” of CAHSR to the detriment of San Francisco. 12 trains per hour per direction capacity in San Jose versus just 4 HSR arrivals and departures in the Transbay Transit Center. So the current stoppage by Newsome is about scuttling the Pacheco Pass alignment (and its 13-mile tunnel) and re-routing HSR in NoCal to the Altamont Pass and HSR entering the Transbay Transit Center from a tunnel under the bay, which turns Transbay into a thru station, and greatly increases its capacity. HSR can turn in 4th & King, meaning SF Transbay could handle 12 inbound and outbound trains per hour from its 4 tracks dedicated to HSR. Plus, the 2 Caltrains Platforms can be made to handle Capitol Corridor trains. Caltrains can continue to the East Bay. Everybody wins.

  13. Correct. The governor’s comments are the beginning of the process to revert CAHSR to circa-2005 approach plans to LA and the East Bay. Reverting to I-5 will save at least $10 billion dollars, if not much more. Same for deleting the Pacheco Pass tunnel.

  14. Flying is now faster and more efficient than a train, not to mention the fact that air travel infrastructure already exists. California is not Asia or Europe. Besides, Asian/European train systems are built by governments and then subsidized by governments after they are built.

    The project passed by voters in 2008 promised that it would require no taxpayer subsidy to operate, that it would be supported by its passengers.

  15. Who supports this project? I do:

    As a resident and taxpayer: this provides a faster and more efficient way to travel between SF and LA. Continued expansion of roads and airports is costly and unsustainable.
    As someone who cares about the future of California long after I’m gone: CAHSR is sustainable as fossil fuels become more scarce and produces less pollution. It scales better than air or car travel.

    I’d like to know how a technology that is very successful in Europe and Asia can be a dumb idea in North America. Or are we Americans the dumb ones?

  16. Governor Newsom likes to think of himself as a bold leader, but his remarks on high-speed rail promise more of the same on this dumb project. Good money must now be spent on top of the money already wasted on this stupid project.

    Who supports this project? The anti-car lobby, of which Streetsblog is a member, along with the Bicycle Coalition. Trains are seen almost as good as bikes, since they aren’t cars. And organized labor, an important part of the Democratic Party’s base. Labor organizations understand that even dumb projects create jobs for their members.

    And many liberals mindlessly support this dumb project, and I say that as a liberal Democrat. As Randal O’Toole has pointed out, “All you have to do is mention the words ‘public transit’ and progressives will fall over themselves to support you no matter how expensive and ridiculous your plans.”

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