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Dan Walters

Walters: Is a Mini-Bullet Train Worth the Cost?



Photo of high-speed rail construction in Fresno, California
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By 2030, according to a new state plan, Californians will be able to ride high-speed trains — but only between Merced and Bakersfield.

The High-Speed Rail Authority’s updated “business plan,” released Tuesday, clearly reflects the much-lowered expectations laid out by Gov. Gavin Newsom after he succeeded bullet train enthusiast Jerry Brown two years ago.

Dan Walters


In his first State of the State address, Newsom implied that he wanted to cancel the project altogether, saying, “The project, as currently planned, would cost too much and take too long. There’s been too little oversight and not enough transparency.”

Quickly, however, Newsom declared that he wanted to concentrate on completing a 119-mile segment in the Central Valley, from Madera to an orchard near Shafter, then extend it to Merced on the north and Bakersfield on the south before beginning service on the full 171-mile stretch.

A Merced-Bakersfield bullet train ostensibly would be connected on both ends with train and/or bus services to allow someone to travel between San Francisco and Los Angeles, albeit with multiple changes of venue.

Price Tag Climbing

The new revision embodies that concept, but still faces potential roadblocks, particularly financial.

It raises the cost of the 119-mile segment to $13.8 billion and says the extensions to Merced and Bakersfield would add nearly $10 billion to that figure. The plan proposes to tap the remainder of the $9.95 billion in state bonds that voters authorized in 2008, hopes that the project’s revenues from the state’s cap-and-trade auctions of greenhouse gas emission permits will stabilize, and suggests borrowing money against those auction proceeds.

The plan also assumes that with Joe Biden succeeding Donald Trump in the White House, nearly a billion dollars in federal bullet train funds frozen by the Trump administration after Newsom’s somewhat confusing 2019 speech will be released and California might even see more money from Washington.

“We have commenced conversations with the Biden Administration on these matters,” the project’s boss, Brian Kelly, says in a preamble to the new plan. “Because the project is advancing … we believe we can work with our federal partner on our revised schedule and restore federal investment in this program.”

High-Speed Ride in the Valley

Let’s assume that the new plan becomes reality. The 119-mile section now under construction becomes a “test bed,” it’s extended to 171 miles (with only a single track) and the state then leases it to a private or quasi-private operator so that passenger service can begin.

Is that worth the $20-plus billion that such a limited system would cost? Would it even attract enough passengers to cover its operating costs without the subsidies that the 2008 ballot measure banned?

The new plan smacks of wanting desperately to give a skeptical public something that actually functions, even it’s just a curiosity that some folks might ride a few times just for the experience.

It seems far-fetched that many would get on and off at least four different conveyances to travel between San Francisco and Los Angeles in, at best, perhaps five hours when planes make the trip frequently in about an hour.

In theory, the “initial operating segment” would eventually be part of a statewide system offering LA-to-SF travel in two hours and 40 minutes, but the hurdles to achieve that, both financial and logistical, are daunting. It would require at least $60 billion more in construction money and extensive tunneling through mountain ranges that ring the Central Valley.

The scaled-down Merced-Bakersfield version now being pursued isn’t exactly a train to nowhere, but it falls far short of the futuristic bullet train its supporters promised.

CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He has written more than 9,000 columns about the state and its politics and is the founding editor of the “California Political Almanac.” Dan has also been a frequent guest on national television news shows, commenting on California issues and policies.