California: land of sun, nature, culture, and traffic. Los Angeles suffers from some of the worst congestion in the world, with drivers spending an average of 100 hours per year stuck in traffic. Californians are aware that this reality is not set in stone and are working tirelessly to change the state’s system of mobility. There is lots of work being done around the state to improve public transportation, including major expansions to the Los Angeles Metro in preparation for the 2028 Olympic Games. The largest of these infrastructure investments is a high-speed rail system that would connect California’s two most populous cities, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The California High-Speed Rail (CHR) is poised to become the first system of its kind in North America, ushering in an era of innovation to catch California up with its European and Asian counterparts.
The project was initiated in 1996 under former governor Pete Wilson, who oversaw the creation of the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) which was tasked with conducting research and creating a plan for this ambitious infrastructure project. This task force met with Japanese officials who worked on the original Japanese Shinkansen system to gain insight into the creation of a new high-speed rail system.
The decisive moment arrived in 2008, when California voters embraced Proposition 1A, also known as the “Safe, Reliable, High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act for the 21st Century,” with 6,680,405 votes (52.62%). By passing this proposition, Californians approved the allocation of public funds to realize an 837-kilometer rail network linking San Francisco and Los Angeles capable of reaching speeds of up to 350 kilometers per hour. CHSRA promises a travel time of merely three hours, a substantial reduction compared to the arduous six hours and forty minutes required by driving—without even taking into account California’s infamous traffic woes.
Since its inception in 1996 and public approval in 2008, the project has faced a myriad of challenges including funding deficiencies, political opposition from the Right, and legal battles surrounding the development of farmland in the Central Valley, which supplies about 25% of the nation’s food. Despite these hurdles, the project has garnered widespread support from environmentalists, businesses, and people simply wishing for a quicker way to travel across the state. California, a state plagued by car dependency, is poised to embark on a transportation revolution as it embraces high-quality rail infrastructure, gradually unshackling itself from its vicious cycle of car dependency. Being the most progressive state in the Union, California is uniquely positioned for success in the implementation of such an ambitious and forward-thinking plan.
The CHSRA’s plan to build a high-speed rail system in California is inspired by the resounding success of Japan’s Shinkansen system. Beginning operations in 1964, Japan’s high-speed rail network quickly ascended to the status of a global benchmark for fast, efficient rail transportation. This remarkable achievement sparked emulation in countries worldwide. Japan’s foray into high-speed rail was driven by various factors, including the pressing need to modernize its transportation infrastructure, enhance regional connectivity, and stimulate economic growth. Following World War II, Japan experienced a surge in private automobile ownership, coupled with a decline in rail usage, as people gravitated toward individual modes of transportation in the wake of the post-war economic boom. Yet, this paradigm shift brought about traffic congestion and environmental degradation, necessitating the exploration of alternative transportation options.
Back to the Beginning: the Case of Japan’s Shinkansen
Post WWII, Japan needed to modernize its transportation infrastructure, improve regional connectivity, and support economic growth. In the post-war period of economic recovery, Japan experienced a rapid increase in automobile ownership and a decline in rail usage as people began to shift towards more private modes of transportation. This trend also led to traffic congestion and environmental degradation, prompting the government to invest in alternative modes of travel.
In 1959, Japan’s Ministry of Transportation (MOT) broke ground on a high-speed rail system that would link Japan’s two largest cities, Tokyo and Osaka. Construction was completed just five years later in 1964, making Japan the first nation to have dedicated high-speed rail lines. The Shinkansen was an instant success, attracting millions of passengers and reducing travel times between Tokyo and Osaka from 6 hours and forty minutes to just 3 hours, the same as the future Los Angeles to San Francisco line. The success of the Shinkansen led to the expansion of the network, with new lines opening throughout the country. Today, Japan’s high-speed rail network covers over 2,700 km and serves over 1,000,000 passengers daily.
Different Contexts, Different Challenges
California’s high-speed rail project faces many challenges that Japan did not encounter during the development of its own system, though it does carry some distinct advantages. One major challenge is the cost of construction, which has ballooned to over $128 billion, much higher than the initial estimate of $30 billion approved by voters in 2008. This is largely due to the nature of private construction firms contracted by the government and their ability to balloon the cost of a given project, but this is a complex topic worthy of further exploration in a future article. The project has also faced legal and political opposition, particularly from residents and politicians in the Central Valley, where many farms and communities would be affected by the construction of the rail line. In addition, the project has struggled to secure funding, with many sources of funding, including federal grants, uncertain or unavailable due to the politicization of the project.
One notable advantage lies in the utilization of state-of-the-art technology and materials, which have undergone significant advancements since the inception of the Shinkansen in the 1960s. California’s high-speed trains will employ advanced propulsion and braking systems, lightweight materials, and streamlined designs, all contributing to reduced energy consumption and enhanced efficiency. Furthermore, California’s system will be fully electric, further minimizing emissions and noise pollution.
Another advantage of California’s high-speed rail project is the potential for economic development and job creation. The construction and operation of the rail system have already created over 10,000 jobs and will create thousands more, both in the short and long term. Despite the high cost of the project, it will ultimately strengthen the economy through job creation as well as the promotion of economic development by connecting California’s biggest cities, improving regional connectivity, and reducing congestion on highways and airports. It will provide a more environmentally friendly alternative to driving or flying, reducing carbon emissions and air pollution.
Another aspect the CHSRA must take into account when planning the HSR is California’s diverse landscape which harbors a dark history of discriminatory housing and infrastructure policies, resulting in heightened social inequalities within communities of color. This transformative project holds the promise of addressing these social and economic disparities by providing affordable transportation options for low-income communities, reducing travel times between cities, and improving access to vital services such as jobs, education, and healthcare. By furnishing fast and affordable transportation alternatives that diminish the necessity for private cars, California can embark on a journey to rectify decades of inequality.
The ultimate success of California’s high-speed rail project hinges upon several factors, including securing adequate funding, garnering political support, fostering public engagement, and implementing effective management. In response to funding shortfalls, the CHSRA has explored alternative financing mechanisms, including public-private partnerships, while procuring some federal and state funding. Nevertheless, the project still faces substantial funding gaps, its future contingent upon the availability of additional investment. On the bright side, the Biden administration’s 2021 infrastructure bill allocated US$66 billion for rail funding. While the majority of this is dedicated to Amtrak, the national passenger rail company of the US, and money was not set aside for California’s high-speed rail project. Government officials remain optimistic, with former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi stating “I do believe that the infrastructure bill enables us to have resources at the federal level in California”.
This project underscores California’s large urban/ rural divide, as urban dwellers tend to embrace high-speed rail while rural residents, whose farmland the project would cut through, are largely in opposition. In an effort to curb political opposition and legal disputes, the CHSRA has been engaging in extensive public outreach and stakeholder engagement efforts, striving to build support among affected communities and businesses. Furthermore, the CHSRA has been diligent in addressing concerns about the environmental and social impacts of the project, including the potential displacement of residents and businesses, and has developed mitigation measures to address these impacts.
Lessons for California
The California high-speed rail project represents a remarkable infrastructure undertaking aimed at uniting the state’s major cities through an advanced, swift, and reliable rail system. Although the project faces significant challenges such as funding shortfalls, political opposition, and legal disputes, it possesses immense potential to spur economic development, reduce carbon emissions, and rectify social and economic inequalities. Already, the project has generated US$13.7 billion in economic activity and is projected to generate tens of billions more in the coming years. As of June 2023 the project is 40% complete, with an estimated completion date of 2028. Sections of track will become operational as they are completed, becoming fully operational by 2030.
Japan’s experience with high-speed rail offers invaluable lessons to California and other nations embarking on similar ventures, emphasizing the importance of meticulous planning, stakeholder engagement, and effective project management. While the realization of California’s high-speed rail project’s ambitious goals remains to be seen, its triumph relies on the commitment of stakeholders, funding, and political support.
The future of California is bright, with this project poised to reinforce and maintain its reputation as an economic powerhouse and global leader in culture and technology by fortifying its connectivity and infrastructure. Yes, the costs are high, but this high initial investment will eventually fade from public memory. As in Japan, we no longer dwell upon the initial cost of the expense of the Shinkansen project, instead marveling at its awe-inspiring system, California can embark on a similar journey and become a model for HSR in North America. Japan’s success with the Shinkansen is a beacon of hope for California, showing that if we build high-quality infrastructure, the investment will eventually outweigh the temporary financial strain. The California high-speed Rail project is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve the state for decades to come.