Last month, the California State Legislature adjourned without acting on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recommendation to issue the remaining $4 billion of high-speed rail bonds approved by the state’s voters back in 2008. Without the bond proceeds, the California High-Speed Rail Authority will not be able to meet its intermediate objective of establishing service along 171 miles of electrified track between Merced and Bakersfield.
One of the ongoing justifications used for building the train is that it will help California reduce its greenhouse gas emissions but there is little evidence to suggest the high-speed rail system would actually help the environment. Train travelers switching from the existing Amtrak service to the new high-speed rail line between Merced and Fresno would cut their travel times from 191 minutes to 81 minutes, which sounds impressive but reflects an average operating speed of only 127 miles per hour for the supposed high-speed system. One reason for the slow speed, by true high-speed rail standards, is the three intermediate stops on the route. Trains and passengers lose time dwelling at platforms and the trains need time to decelerate from, and accelerate to, their maximum speeds in the vicinity of each station.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority also calculates the 81-minute trip between Merced to Bakersfield would offer a 73 minute-savings versus driving. But one problem is that not that many people travel between Merced and Bakersfield or vice versa on any given day. Further, none of the metro regions in the Central Valley— Merced (population 281,202), Bakersfield (population 909,235), Madera (city population 64,833), Fresno (population 1,008,654), or Hanford (population 152,692)—are major population and employment centers (with populations of 5 million or more) that could generate significant ridership. Also, there is a limited nexus between any of the cities on the route.
This contrasts greatly to rail routes and systems that proponents often hold up as examples, like New York City and Washington, DC, where much larger populations with far busier business districts and industries create the need for professionals in one region to meet with colleagues in the other. It is hard to imagine how the high usage of Amtrak’s Acela service in the Northeast Corridor could be replicated by high-speed rail in the Central Valley.
Further, the 81-minute travel time may not be achievable on some of California’s hottest days, in part, because excessive heat can cause buckling of steel tracks. To reduce pressure on the tracks and prevent derailments, trains must often operate at lower speeds when temperatures are high. During a 2019 heatwave, for example, France’s SCNF capped the maximum speeds of its TGV high-speed rail service at 174-186 miles per hour, down from its typical 200 miles per hour.
And in the United States, during last summer’s Pacific Northwest heat wave, Amtrak reduced speeds on its conventional Cascades rail service. This is consistent with Amtrak’s policy of capping speeds at 80 miles per hour, when rail track temperatures reach 140° (which is well within the range of possibility since track temperatures can exceed ambient temperatures by as much as 40° on sunny days with calm winds).
Another problem is that virtually no travelers will start and complete their trips near the high-speed rail stations. Relative to east coast cities with dense downtowns, Central Valley cities are far more dispersed. Consequently, a high-speed rail excursion will typically need to be paired with a personal car trip, car rental, and/or taxi rides at either or both ends of the trip. For example, a common destination for visitors to Merced might be the University of California campus there. But that campus is a seven-mile drive from the train station.
It is worth considering some counterpoints from the California High-Speed Rail Authority and other high-speed rail proponents. First, due to planned connections with other services, travelers outside the Central Valley could use high-speed rail. A planned extension to the Altamont Commuter Express (ACE) would provide access to the San Francisco Bay Area from Merced, while buses already connect the Bakersfield Amtrak Station to Los Angeles. But demand for these connections may be limited by the speed and frequency of the connecting service as well as changes in travel requirements. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was considerable hope or interest in the possibility that good train service would facilitate more commuting between the relatively inexpensive Central Valley and the job-rich Silicon Valley, where housing is extremely expensive. But during the pandemic, many of these jobs are fully remote and may continue to be remote, or hybrids requiring only one or two office visits per week, when the pandemic is over.
Another concern is that a failure to invest in electrifying high-speed rail’s initial operating segment will oblige the authority to run diesel trains along the line, adding to greenhouse gas emissions. But the California High-Speed Rail Authority has another option. Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon suggested using non-polluting hydrogen cell trains. Such trains currently operate in Germany with planned service in France, Italy, and potentially the United Kingdom. A major drawback is hydrogen cell trains, however, is that they have a maximum speed of only 87 miles per hour.
Diesel trains could go faster—around 125 mph—but are not as green. That said, greenhouse gas emissions from the interim Central Valley rail service would not significantly change the state’s overall climate impact. Since the demand for higher speed Central Valley rail service will be limited, service frequency will also be limited. The fewer trains running along the line, the fewer greenhouse gas emissions will be produced. Assuming there are 10 daily departures in each direction and carbon emissions of 100 grams per mile, diesel service along the Merced to Bakersfield route would produce 125 metric tons of CO2 each year. That is less than one-millionth of the CO2 California generates each year.
Rail supporters desperately want to establish true high-speed rail service somewhere in the United States. But building a white elephant is not the best way to introduce Americans to this form of transportation.
The California State Legislature was wise to tap the breaks on electrification of the Central Valley segment. Unless the rail authority can convincingly rebut the concerns expressed here and address the long list of other problems plaguing the project that is far over budget and far behind schedule, state legislators should consider more effective mass transit options. If they feel they must spend the bond proceeds, for example, they could improve the fixed-route bus service in cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco. Buses are a transportation service that California residents and workers actually use.