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Federal Grants Breathe New Life Into California's High-Speed Rail

The US Department of Transportation has approved new grants totaling $6.07 billion to construct two new high-speed railways in California and Nevada. 

The privately-owned railway, Brightline West, is on track to connect Las Vegas and Los Angeles by 2028, propelling tourists between the two destinations at speeds exceeding 100 mph, adding a dynamic dimension to the Nevada gambling hub.

Simultaneously, the state-owned California High-Speed Rail (CAHSR) is poised to eventually forge a link between Los Angeles and San Francisco, traversing Central Valley cities like Bakersfield, Fresno, and Merced, boasting an impressive top speed of 220 mph. Construction has commenced on a pilot section spanning from Bakersfield to Merced, with service scheduled to commence in 2030.

A Prolonged and Challenging Evolution

The origins of both rail projects trace back over a decade. Beginning its journey as DesertXpress in 2005, the railway later rebranded to XpressWest in 2011, envisioning expansion to Phoenix, Arizona, Denver, Colorado, and Salt Lake City, Utah. However, the project encountered numerous challenges, including difficulties securing state loans and a thwarted joint venture with China Railways International USA due to regulatory constraints.

In 2018, XpressWest was acquired by Fortress Investment Group, which owns the Brightline intercity railway between Miami and Orlando, Florida. The new owners renamed XpressWest to Brightline West, successfully obtained over $800 million for the project from the California and Nevada governments, and ended plans for service beyond Las Vegas. Planning for a line through Cajon Pass began in 2020. The latest federal award to the project gives $3 billion for high-speed railway construction. Construction is slated to begin in 2024.

CAHSR's genesis can be traced back to the 1990s, gaining voter approval in 2008.

 According to the New York Times, the California government initially approved the project with a budget of $33 billion and an opening deadline of 2020. However, political lobbying efforts caused several significant changes to the original route--instead of a direct Los Angeles-San Francisco route, the railway was diverted through the Los Angeles suburbs and the Central Valley, which increased potential ridership but incurred significant costs.

Construction on high-speed rail infrastructure began with the 2015-16 construction of the Fresno River Viaduct, seven years after the railway's approval. Part of the long delay between approval and construction was due to the stringent environmental approval process mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act, which consumes a significant amount of time and money--$1.3 billion, according to CAHSR Authority CEO Brian Kelly. The Project will also involve expensive tunneling work for a future section near Los Angeles. The budget for the railway now stands at $128 billion, with not all funds secured by the Authority.

Hope For The Future

Despite the years of setbacks, both high-speed rail projects have progressed. As of the current year, 422 miles of the 500-mile CAHSR track have received environmental clearance, according to the latest yearly project report from the CAHSR Authority, and 119 miles of that track are currently under construction in the less-expensive Central Valley section. When all 500 miles are complete, CAHSR will allow travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco in just 2 hours and 40 minutes. The Brightline West project has received environmental approval for its route to Rancho Cucamonga, and construction will soon begin. 

The CAHSR Authority hopes to utilize purely renewable energy to power their trains; Brightline West's trains will be powered similarly and have a similar impact. When combined with the number of cars taken off of roads by the railway, high-speed rail will represent a considerable decrease to California’s emissions. 


Picture credits: California High-Speed Rail Authority

Edited by: Matsoarelo Makuke

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Tags: #travel #trains #railways #California rail #high-speed


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