California’s Bullet Train Should Not Bite the Bullet

Illustration by Natalie Dye

Andrew Arias

Voted into law on the 2008 ballot, California is still in the process of building its much-anticipated bullet train. The high-speed railway, which was estimated to cost $64 billion, promises a smooth two-hour-and-40-minute ride at 220 mph from San Francisco’s Transbay Terminal to Los Angeles’ Union Station. The train will pass through 24 stations between these points once finished. California’s bullet train is necessary to see through to completion because it will boost Californian business as well as help the state reach its environmental goals.

What used to be a four hour drive from the Central Valley up to the Silicon Valley or down to Los Angeles will be reduced to less than an hour commute, allowing more travelers to come whether for business or personal reasons.

Connecting cities in a more timely fashion offers intercity businesses a solution to faster travel, as well as business to gain more customers and sponsors throughout the state. Reducing travel time and costs, and increasing access, will benefit all industries.

Businesses will not be the only beneficiary; the environment will as well. The bullet train project hopes to contribute to California’s plan to reduce carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030. The train, which will be electrically powered, will cut down on 180 flights and 10 million miles of vehicle travel a day, according to the California High-Speed Rail Authority. An hour more on the train than a flight doesn’t seem so bad compared to waiting that extra hour in airport traffic, parking, and TSA lines.

Since then, there have been some changes to the design and the plan has been broken down into three parts: Phase one, from San Jose to Bakersfield, is expected to be available for travel by 2025.  

Phase two hopes to add to the original plan with the extensions from San Jose to San Francisco and from Bakersfield through Los Angeles all the way to Orange County.

Concluding the project, the route will break off in the North to Sacramento and in the South through the Inland Empire down to San Diego.

The original idea was a straight shot from San Francisco to Los Angeles, but alterations to the plan now lead it to include the Central Valley, San Diego, and Sacramento. Although this is a big part of the delay, this is good for the local economies all throughout the state.

The idea of faster travel and improving our infrastructure and economy is great, but the building of the bullet train has been delayed because of politics more than inability of construction. The new accommodations the plan includes jumped from the original price of $40 billion to $64 billion to now as much as $100 billion due to delays, causing taxpayers to feel their money isn’t being used properly.

The increase in costs is due to the extension of the original plan to other major cities in California, which is reasonable. Another reason for a higher cost are the lawsuits being filed. There are six lawsuits against the Central Valley portion of the train alone. These lawsuits dilute the resources and delay the construction, which also increases the project’s cost.

The California Environmental Quality Act allows parties against the train to open up litigation if they believe the project isn’t following legal standards. According to Eleanor Cummins from Inverse, a federal board granted immunity from lawsuits to the project, but a federal appellate court dismissed the decision and ruled the project must comply with environmental tests, share those findings with the public, and submit to the court’s decision in cases over any protestations.

An interesting comparison in the political debate is between a bullet train and Elon Musk’s hyperloop. Musk’s hyperloop, like the magnetic levitation trains in Japan, is said to reach speeds of up to 700 mph. It would allow passengers to go from LA to San Francisco in 30 minutes. The most shocking part of his idea is that it will only cost $6 billion.

With the accomplishments of SpaceX, we just have to see how this public vs private contest goes. According to the Baltimore Sun, Maryland already approved Elon Musk’s hyperloop project to begin digging two 35-mile tubes between Baltimore and Washington without having to spend any of the state’s funds. This is something California should look into in the future.

In the meantime, California, and the whole U.S., is behind in infrastructure relative to other countries. Japan and France had bullet trains operating in the 1980’s. Many other countries followed between then and now. The Intercity-Express (ICE) train in Europe travels at 186 mph and connects most of the major cities in Europe. China has a train connecting Shanghai to Beijing that reaches speeds of 217 mph.

New technologies will advance our transportation and improve our lives. It just takes time, money, and most importantly, patience before we benefit.