California bullet train: The high price of speed


Since it opened in 1893, Bakersfield High School has been the pride of this city and its academic cornerstone, the place where the late Chief Justice Earl Warren graduated and students call themselves the Drillers in homage to the region’s oil patch.

It has withstood earthquakes and depressions, but perhaps it will not survive the California bullet train.

The train’s proposed routes are taking aim at the campus, potentially putting a bulls-eye on the Industrial Arts Building, where future engineers, ceramic artists, auto mechanics, fabric designers and wood-workers take classes. Even though freight trains already lumber not far from the campus, these elevated trains could rocket by on a viaduct at up to 220 mph every five minutes, eye level with the school library and deafening the stately outdoor commons where students congregate between classes.


“Obviously we can’t have a school with a high-speed rail going over the top of the building,” said Principal David Reese. “What kind of distraction would that cause our students?”

The California High Speed Rail Authority, the agency trying to build the bullet train, couldn’t have found a more politically sensitive target. The school is where House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), one of the project’s staunchest opponents in Congress, sends his children.

Critics say such blunders are routine for the rail authority. Across the length of the Central Valley, the bullet train as drawn would destroy churches, schools, private homes, shelters for low-income people, animal processing plants, warehouses, banks, medical offices, auto parts stores, factories, farm fields, mobile home parks, apartment buildings and much else as it cuts through the richest agricultural belt in the nation and through some of the most depressed cities in California.

Although the potential for such disruption was understood in general terms when the project began 15 years ago, the reality is only now beginning to sink in.

The potential economic, cultural and political damage may be an omen. The Central Valley, where construction could start next year, is expected to be the politically easiest and lowest-cost segment of the system, designed to move millions of passengers between Southern California and the Bay Area. The project’s effects could be even greater in more populous places like Silicon Valley, Orange County, Burbank, San Francisco and downtown Los Angeles.

“It is possible to do a high-speed rail project, but you have to be very artful about it, and the authority has been anything but artful,” said state Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), chairman of the Senate transportation subcommittee. “The level of trust at the beginning was pretty low, and it has only gotten worse. Big chunks of the state do not believe they are being listened to.”


For years the train’s path was somewhat vague, but in August the authority released 70,000 pages of environmental impact reports that detail potential routes through the Central Valley.

Authority officials say they have made every effort to work with people who could be displaced in order to minimize its effects. Rail authority chairman Tom Umberg says a high-speed rail will improve the quality of life in California, not reduce it. Proponents say the benefits are overwhelmingly positive.

“The net gain in jobs is pretty significant,” said Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, a big supporter.

But her own City Council was stunned when members learned recently that hundreds of businesses would be shut down along the 16 miles of rail through town, according to Scott Mozier, the city’s assistant public works director.

More than a mile-long segment of California 99, the major freeway serving the farm belt, would have to be moved about 100 feet and three exits would have to be closed. In Kings County, a processing plant that handles about a quarter of a million pounds of dairy cow carcasses would be bisected by the rail, said Jim Andreoli, chief executive of Baker Commodities, owner of the plant. Shutting down for even a few days would leave a mountain of carcasses.

Almost every city and county along the proposed route loses something, but none more than Bakersfield. More than 228 homes and more than a half dozen churches would be taken, many of them in low-income minority communities on the city’s east side. The rail authority’s plans have both homeowners and government agencies confused.


In formal comments submitted this month to the authority, Bakersfield officials called the plans “ambiguous and unstable.” What’s more, the authority was being “clearly unreasonable” in initially allowing only two months for the city to review the plans.

The authority, for example, detailed two potential routes close together through the city. Those routes cover only part of Bakersfield, however, causing many property owners to extrapolate that they would be in the train’s path when the rest of the route was specified.

Officials at First Free Will Baptist Church believe it will lose some of the 22 parcels it owns in east Bakersfield, damaging its outreach mission and a school for 70 kids, no matter which route is selected.

“This area is in decline,” said Pastor Mark Harrison. “We have a failing economy. There is a lot of vandalism here. There is graffiti everywhere. We are overrun with gangs. It is a violent area at night. If you want to see hopelessness, look at the youth in this area. We like to think of our church as standing for hope.”

Not far from the Baptist church, the bullet train could take aim at a window of the Full Gospel Lighthouse Church, said Pentecostal pastor Todd Matthews. When he received a note warning him about the potential destruction of his church, he put the paper in his shoe, invoking biblical scripture to destroy the rail plan under the feet of God.

“We distribute food and blankets to the homeless at Martin Luther King Park across the street,” said Matthews, who worked in the Kern County oil fields for 29 years. “This property is our promise from God. If they offered us $10 million, we would not take it.”


About a decade ago, the rail authority asked Bakersfield officials where they wanted a high-speed train station, and civic leaders envisioned a downtown depot that would attract residential development, recalled city planning director Jim Eggert.

What they did not imagine was a viaduct elevated 80 feet over the city and a 5,000-car parking garage dominating the city center, he said. Acoustic experts have also warned that the rail authority is underestimating how loud the trains will be.

“The rail will be too noisy for people to want to live around,” he said. “Now that we know what the impacts are, maybe we should have considered a bypass outside of town.”

An attractive new downtown residential development along a canal, City Place, is in the train’s path, Eggert said. The development is so new that the authority’s environmental report did not count its 200 residential units in the city’s impact report.

Now, opposition is widespread across town.

When the City Council was considering endorsing the bullet train, some 500 students and alumni of Bakersfield High showed up to protest. The council backed off, recalled Reese, the school’s principal.

Either Bakersfield route would cause problems at the school, Reese said. He noted that under the state education code, school systems are not allowed to build new campuses within 1,500 feet of a rail line, but there is no parallel regulation that prevents the building of a rail line near a school.


“Safety is always my first issue,” Reese added. “The rail authority argues that there has never been a high-speed derailment. Well, since they said that, there has been a derailment in China,” a reference to a crash that killed at least 38 last July.

Rachel Wall, an authority spokeswoman, said the agency is working to mitigate the school’s concerns.

Whether the Central Valley can force significant changes in the bullet train plan is unclear. Up and down the valley, people know they are not playing with a strong political hand.

“Some people will say they screwed a bunch of farmers in Kings County. So who cares?” said Frank Oliveira, a farmer. “The answer is they will screw you too when it comes to your neighborhood.”