It’s time to throw in the towel on HSR

What are we to believe? The story that is spun by one of the most important state agencies changes so often that any announcement is immediately suspect.

I think that I’ve written 13 columns about the state’s proposed high-speed rail. Anyway, that’s all I could find in my computer files, which are incomplete because my house burned down in 2009, and I lost a lot of early files.

The first column I could find was published April 15, 2010, and in it I questioned the wisdom of the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA), which had authorized the construction of track between San Francisco and Los Angeles, eventually extending to San Diego. The start-up capital for the project was nearly $10 billion from a bond that Californians passed in 2008.The first leg of the project was to begin at Borden (near the “little white house where the big yellow dog used to live,” as I later wrote on Dec. 9, 2010).

Borden had a population of zero. The line would stretch to Corcoran, which had a population of 26,000, half of whom were incarcerated in the two prisons located there. As of 2016, Corcoran’s population is a little less than 22,700, and the prisons house about 9,600 inmates. In that column, I quoted lyrics from Kenny Rogers’ recording of “The Gambler,” which cited a “train bound for nowhere.” Evolution

Things change. According to my April 26, 2012, column, the CHSRA had released a 32-chapter report detailing a “bullet train” that would travel from Merced to Fresno, while speeding through Madera County at speeds “approaching 200 mph” with nary a thought about Borden. At that time, I reported on the high-speed train that traveled between Shanghai and Beijing at 302 mph. That was 50 percent faster than the transport that the CHSRA was offering Californians.

Moreover, the members of the state board estimated that the line could be extended all the way to Bakersfield by 2017 for about $6 billion. Well, 2017 has come and gone, and the current estimate for the Central Valley portion of the route is now $10.6 billion, according to the Los Angeles Times. And, it doesn’t even go from Merced to Bakersfield. The plan now is to build the system from Madera to Wasco, a distance of about 120 miles. It’s funny how things seem to cost more once you’re so committed to them that you can’t back out.

On April 22, 2013, I started beating the drum for Elon Musk’s proposal for an alternative to high-speed rail, a system called Hyperloop. Musk believed that the U.S. (and especially California) was accustomed to revolutionizing things, not copying them. Countries like Japan and China (among others) have already built bullet trains that are faster and less expensive than the system being planned for the Golden State.

Musk’s idea is to put people (and cargo) in pods that would travel through a tube, delivering them from Los Angeles to San Francisco in about 30 minutes. The pods, or capsules, would travel at a speed of about 600 mph, with a top speed of 760 mph. Reduced cost

Along with offering greater speed, Musk’s system would drastically reduce the cost of moving people between major population centers. His initial plans were for a tube running from Sylmar (just south of the Grapevine) to the Hayward/Castro Valley area, which would cost Californians about $6 billion, or less than 1/10th the price of the 2013 estimate for the HSR (which now seems to have been understated). But, for an additional 1.7 billion, the tube and its capsules could be modified to carry cars, as well as people. This makes much more sense because once people arrive at the depot, they will then have to drive somewhere else.

Musk thought that the system would be very efficient even though the capsules would necessarily be smaller than passenger cars on a train. Capsules could be started about five miles apart, making it possible for the system to transport 7.4 million riders per year at $20 per ticket. At that rate, the system would pay for itself over a twenty-year period.

The state’s proposed HSR system has run into legal problems and still has not acquired all of the rights-of-way that will be needed. Musk’s system, on the other hand, would run along the median of I-5, causing fewer problems with land use and environmental impact. Obviously, I was sold on the new plan. Excitement and disappointment

As I was typing my column for Feb. 28, 2015, my fingers were flying across the keyboard with excitement and anticipation. First, I found a computer site that listed 212 automobiles that could beat the HSR bullet train. So, I thought that if we repaired our highways and designated certain lanes just for high-speed travel, people could traverse the state as fast as the bullet train but with the convenience of having their cars.

Second, it looked as if the Central Valley would get its very own Hyperloop. At that time, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) announced that it would partner with Quay Valley, a real estate development organization that was planning a new community in Kings County. The whole development would be powered by solar panels, and it would be surrounded by a five-mile Hyperloop!

Then, toward the end of last year, HTT announced that the plans for Quay Valley had collapsed and the corporation would concentrate on its projects in Asia and Europe.

This occurred at about the same time that Australia announced its plan to ditch its HSR project in favor of a Hyperloop system that would travel 1,100 miles, connecting Melbourne and Brisbane. This stimulated interest in Russia, India, the United Arab Republic, and Slovakia, but not California.

Finally, we learned last year that the California HSR, which has now been augmented to run from Silicon Valley to the Central Valley and from S.F. to San Jose (where it would cross 42 major highways), is fraught with dangers of accidents involving everything from debris along the track to having to slow to half speed or less when running downhill, especially when descending the Tehachapi Mountains between Los Angeles and Bakersfield.

This week, Assemblymember Jim Patterson called for — and was granted — an audit because of the recently increased estimate. But really, isn’t it time to demand that the CHSRA throw in the towel?

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Jim Glynn may be contacted at j_glynn@att.net.

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