The Orange County Register printed an in depth story last week about the current status of California's High Speed Rail project. In that story, they suggested that the High Speed Rail Authority is moving ahead despite analysts' claims that the project is already billions over run and that more over runs will be forthcoming. The story says that the vision of being able to avoid crowded freeways, crowded planes and getting to either north or south via an advanced technology high speed train is "entrancing". So much so that the Register suggests that diligence and project monitoring are lagging.
A project of this scope has never been attempted in the United States. While European countries have had years of experience in planning, building and operating high speedtrains, we here in the US simply do not have the experience that our overseas neighbors have. However, while we are literally breaking new ground to build the system, opponents of the system and some of the public who are understandably suffering from a stalled economy are calling for a halt to the project. While ground breaking of the first part of the system is to take place next year between Fresno and Bakersfield (federal rules mandate staring to build in 2012), many are asking how can we continue this program in the face of so many daunting challenges. Among primary challenges are rights of way. Defining routing is difficult whereas unlike conventional rail where much of the track goes through at ground level, the high speed train has to be separated from crossings either by bridges or below grade trenching. This adds greatly to the cost but is necessary for trains traveling at high speeds.
Is it worth it to continue such a project? Comparing this project to other projects such as going to the moon or even building the first cross country railroad requires vision as well as perseverance. While adherence to sound project management guidelines are key to bringing the system to reality, we are moving through unchartered territory and we don't know all the answers. Another question is why build the first segment in a low traffic area? For starters, the route is relatively unencumbered with right-of-way issues. Next, what better place to learn lessons and hone processes in a low impact area then to start here rather than LA to Anaheim where mistakes would be much more costly?
Other benefits from the project will make life better for California business. The project analysts are taking another look at the Tejon Pass/Grapevine routing. This aspect of the project if done correctly by adding freight tracks, will benefit north south commerce like nothing else. A new rail link over the pass would save save shippers and businesses millions of dollars by shaving 90 miles or so off of the current, very congested rail link over the Tehachapis. While Palmdale is understandably dismayed by being by-passed, enhanced rail links could still conceivably link Palmdale and the Antelope Valley with the system through new east-west rail links.
While there is still much to be learned about building this project, we need to understand that there are unknown risks, some of which can be addressed by bringing in experienced European consultants on technical issues and listening to input from our own great rail talent, but keeping the entrancing vision of fast north south travel can be realized without huge cost overruns. We need to keep our course and persist in what is going to be a couragious and lofty pursuit. With diminishing fuel resources, more costly and less available land and less desire to build more freeways, providing California with transportation systems it needs will keep our population and business moving and keeping the California dream alive.