California governor Newsome axes San Francisco-LA high-speed railway

Ballooning costs on a grand scheme to build a high-speed railway from San Francisco to Los Angeles has led California’s new governor Gavin Newsome to cut off the ends of the line and restrict it to the Central Valley, where work is already under way.

Instead of linking two metropolises, it will now be a commuter line between the smaller cities of Merced and Bakersfield.

The governor announced his decision during his state of the state address in the state capital of Sacramento. He said it was prompted by the ballooning costs of the project, which was originally expected to cost $32bn and be open in 2029. It is now expected to cost at least twice as much and open in 2033.

The network as originally envisaged (California Government)

Newsome said he shared the enthusiasm of previous governors for the scheme, but said: "There’s no doubt that our state’s economy and quality of life depend on improving transportation. But let’s be real. The project, as currently planned, would cost too much and take too long. There’s been too little oversight and not enough transparency.

"Right now, there simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to LA. I wish there were. However, we do have the capacity to complete a high-speed rail link between Merced and Bakersfield."

The governor’s decision means that these two cities, which are 260km apart, will have extraordinarily good communications, but neither are large population centres. Newsome acknowledged that some would call this a "train to nowhere" but said that was "wrong and offensive", as it would cut congestion and pollution in the Central Valley.

Californian Republicans called for the project to be scrapped altogether. Jeff Stone, a state senator, said: "He admitted it has been a failure, but he committed to keep spending billions on the failed project a Central Valley commuter train. That’s not what people were promised, and the project should be killed outright."

However, Newsome dismissed this option in his speech, saying "abandoning high-speed rail entirely means we will have wasted billions of dollars with nothing but broken promises and lawsuits to show for it".

He also left the door open to the completion of the full scheme at a later date, and promised to continue pursuing federal and private-sector funding for the larger project.

Responding to the governor’s speech, Brian Kelly, the chief executive of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, put a brave face on the situation. He said: "The governor has called for setting a priority on getting high speed rail operating in the only region in which we have commenced construction – the Central Valley. We are eager to meet this challenge and expand the project’s economic impact in the Central Valley."

Top image: California’s politicians sign the system’s first rail in 2015 (CHSRA)

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