California’s proposed bullet train will need to soar over small towns on towering viaducts, split rich farm fields diagonally and burrow for miles under mountains for a simple reason: It has no time to spare.
In the fine print of a 2008 voter-approved measure funding the project was a little-noticed requirement that trains be able to rocket from Union Station in downtown Los Angeles to San Francisco in no more than two hours and 40 minutes.
It was an aggressive goal, requiring cutting-edge technology, and was originally intended to protect the sanctity of the bullet train concept from political compromise. Whether the California High Speed Rail Authority can meet such a schedule is far from certain. Even some backers of the project now say it was a mistake to lock in the strict requirement.
It’s hardly an academic issue.
The need for speed is driving a number of environmentally difficult and extremely expensive design choices, contributing to the doubling of the project’s cost to $98.5 billion. Pricey tunnels and viaducts would enable the train to run up to 220 mph, faster than most high-speed trains travel in Europe and Asia.
In addition to raising construction outlays, such velocity would increase electricity use sharply, working against another mandate, that the bullet train’s revenues cover operating expenses. Costs of the project are expected to come under scrutiny Thursday at a Washington hearing held by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Interviews with experts and a Times examination of the latest business plan for the project’s urban and rural areas raise serious questions about whether the timetable can be met.
“I don’t see how you can do it,” said James Earp, a member of the California Transportation Commission and a union leader who helped orchestrate the 2008 ballot measure approving the project.
Rich Tolmach, director of the California Rail Foundation, which advocates for passenger rail projects, said design compromises to gain political support have added to the time the L.A.-to-San Francisco trip will take, leaving the system unable to meet the mandate.
The travel time limit also has become a legal weapon for opponents of the project. A lawsuit by Kings County and two local homeowners is seeking to halt construction partly by claiming that planners are violating state law because the train will be too slow.
Michael McGinley, a former commuter rail executive who as a private consultant advised the rail authority until last year, said the push to beat the clock is driving up costs beyond reason.
“The infrastructure gets progressively more complex as you move to higher speeds,” he said. “It has been designed as an exercise in elegant advanced engineering without consideration of what makes sense as an investment.”
The latest plans include major engineering changes. The system will need up to 168 miles of elevated viaducts, more than double the distance planned in 2009. Tunneling will increase more than 60% to 52 miles. The combined cost of viaducts and tunnels, which make up 43% of the system, has risen threefold to $34 billion.
Some state legislative leaders and rail authority officials say the time requirement never should have been put into the law. “It was a mistake,” said Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), a key supporter of the project who has asked increasingly tough questions about the cost.
Authority board member Dan Richard acknowledged that the high speeds are adding to the project’s complexity and increasing costs. “Did it have to be that tightly stipulated? Probably not,” Richard said. “You should not do engineering by ballot measure.”
“If we are off [the time] at all, it is not a matter of that much,” he added.
Will Kempton, a former California Department of Transportation director who heads a panel of experts who monitor the project for the authority, said he thinks the two-hour-and-40-minute time limit can be met.
Only nonstop trains between L.A. and San Francisco would make the fastest time. Many trains would stop at the more than half a dozen stations along the route, pushing their travel time well past three hours.
A half-dozen lawmakers who voted to put the project on the ballot said they didn’t know the origin of the time limit.
Mehdi Morshed, the longtime chief executive of the rail authority who retired last year after a 30-year career promoting high-speed rail, told The Times it was his doing. “I am the one who insisted on putting the times in,” he said.
“If we didn’t do that, everything would be compromised and you would have a slow train to nowhere. All the revenue and ridership studies showed that for high-speed rail to be successful and pay for its operating costs, you have to be competitive with airplanes.”
Getting a bullet train to run from Los Angeles to San Francisco in less than two hours and 40 minutes wouldn’t be difficult if the route were straighter, Tolmach and others said.
Instead of following Interstate 5, the most direct path, the bullet train track would jog northeast to Palmdale, then northwest to Bakersfield and continue north past Fresno before turning toward the Bay Area. The dog leg to Palmdale alone would add as much as 15 minutes, and the authority is now reconsidering that route.
Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani (D-Tracy), who wrote the 2008 ballot measure, said she attempted to give the rail authority some flexibility by inserting language requiring only that the system be “designed to achieve” the speeds.
The latest route covers 432 miles. Under that plan, the bullet train would share up to 106 miles of track with local commuter rail lines in Southern California and Northern California, where speeds would top out between 110 and 125 mph.
As a result, time would have to be made up in the middle of the state, requiring an average speed there of more than 190 mph. And that doesn’t account for the roughly seven minutes it takes for acceleration and deceleration at each end.
The nonstop trains would have to sail through Lancaster, Bakersfield, Shafter, Fresno, Gilroy and other cities without slowing down.
“We do have some concerns from a noise and safety standpoint, of course,” said Jake Sweeny, director of community services in Shafter. Similarly, Bakersfield officials say they are extremely worried about noise if trains operated at top speeds through the 16 miles of track in the city.
Rachel Wall, the rail authority’s spokeswoman, said the agency plans to mitigate noise and other problems.
To keep to its schedule in the Central Valley, the authority has proposed some controversial routes that will have adverse effects. In Bakersfield, for example, an effort to route the train farther from historic Bakersfield High School was set aside. Steering away from the campus would have required a sharper curve and reduced speeds of about 150 mph.
Another issue with higher speeds is increased electricity use, one of the biggest operating expenses. Aerodynamic drag rises geometrically as speeds increase, meaning a train going 195 mph uses about 50% more electrical power than a train going 160 mph. Partly for that reason, most of the high-speed rail systems around the world operate at 180 mph or less. At that speed, the California train would fail to meet its required timetable.
Proponents say that is exactly why they wanted the two-hour-and-40 minute limit — to ensure that the state ended up with a true bullet train.
“My goal was to make it a competitive high-speed rail,” Morshed said. “If you don’t, it is not going to be successful, and you are going to waste a lot of money.”