Transformation in the Golden State
In California, a long-envisioned high-speed rail system is taking form – the first piece of one of the nation’s – and the world’s – most ambitious transportation undertakings.
By Boris Lipkin, Northern California Regional Director for the California High-Speed Rail Authority
America’s first high-speed rail system (200+ mph) is being built in California, and it is on track to begin service in the state’s Central Valley by the end of this decade. At the same time, work is advancing on extending the system to the state’s coastal areas in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles Basin.
The voters of California approved the development of a high-speed rail system that will ultimately travel across 800 miles of the state, making stops at 24 stations along the way. A new rail system of this scale has not been undertaken in the U.S. for a century, and although high-speed rail exists in other countries, California is leading in the United States in terms of innovation and passenger experience. Accordingly, the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s goal is nothing less than to create the most advanced rail service anywhere in the United States.
Federal policy on a new track
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is a game-changer in terms of federal investment in transportation generally, but particularly when it comes to rail. The new law provides many opportunities for projects like ours. We hope this represents an enduring national policy toward strengthening America’s rail system and rebalancing federal investment that has seen trillions spent on roads, hundreds of billions on airports and tens of billions on the nation’s rail systems.
We believe that our project warrants significant federal investment because of what it can mean for the competitiveness of the California economy as we look to maintain and grow our status as the fifth largest economy in the world. So far, California’s high-speed rail system has been funded 80% by the state and 20% by the federal government. When you compare that ratio with the national highway system – where the federal government pays 80% and states pick up the rest – it highlights the opportunity we have as a country as the pressure builds to develop transportation options that help reduce emissions and address both our mobility and climate goals.
A vision takes form
Proponents of a high-speed rail system in California have been advancing the idea since the early 1980s. Along the way, the concept has had major milestones in 1996 when the Legislature created the California High-Speed Rail Authority to bring the concept to life; in 2008 when the voters of California approved starting construction; and in 2015 when the system broke ground at the site of the future Fresno Station. At this point, 119 miles of the system are under construction and work is underway to begin service on 171 miles of the system in California’s Central Valley by the end of this decade.
However, as the construction work has advanced in the Central Valley, we have maintained our focus on advancing every mile of this statewide project. Just in the last year, the Authority Board of Directors certified the Final Environmental Impact Reports/Environmental Impact Statements (EIR/EIS) for four additional project sections: two in Southern California and two in Northern California. This has completed all of the environmental clearance for high-speed rail in Northern California, through the Central Valley and into Northern Los Angeles County, more than 420 miles of the project’s 500-mile alignment from San Francisco to Los Angeles/Anaheim. These approvals are highly consequential in that they help define the program, help us work with the communities in the project’s path, and position the program to pursue new funding opportunities. In essence, they are one more “green light” for the future of our high-speed rail system.
What does high-speed mean?
At maximum speed our trains will travel at 220 mph, a speed they should sustain across most of the system. However, they will slow down to 100 to 125 mph in densely populated areas and where the service is delivered using existing rail corridors rather than on infrastructure built specifically for high-speed trains. Such speeds are on par with what we see today in Japan, Europe and China, but we will seek to deliver a user experience that transcends what current rail system passengers experience today. We understand that we’re not just building a system for California, but also clearing the path for other states to consider adopting high-speed rail systems as well.
The climate ultimatum
Environmental and climate factors have been part of our thinking since the earliest stages of the project’s development demonstrating California’s long-standing leadership on these important issues. Back in 2008, the Authority committed to running our trains on 100 percent renewable energy. At the time, this seemed like an outlandish goal. But, when you look at the world today, with systems like BART planning to meet that target within the next few years, our goal seems not only very reasonable but highly relevant.
State government ‘start-up’
A project of this size has required an unusually rapid team ramp-up, particularly in the context of a state agency. In 2011, when I joined the project, we had 16 state staff on the team; today we have closer to 400 members, which is still lean for the task at hand. The point is that even though we are a “start-up” we have had to build our team within the constraints of state government, where a myriad of budgeting and position request processes, among others, have to be navigated. Unlike in private-sector startups, where you hire talent in anticipation of future work, in state agencies you must often demonstrate current work needs before accessing new talent. So, our team has become very good at “riding the bicycle as we’ve been building it.” That is what is required to grow and mature an agency from scratch – and achieve 20x staff growth in a decade, inside a public-agency structure.
Making the rules
Beyond the many staffing, engineering and logistical challenges involved in this project, we also are breaking new ground in the regulatory arena. We are naturally challenged to prove the safety of our trains and our overall system, but we inherited no federal regulations on how to meet safety requirements for trains running at 220 mph. Although it’s true that other countries have robust regulations in this area, we had to work closely with our safety federal partner that oversees railroad safety, the Federal Railroad Administration, to shape the regulations for what’s expected of our trains: What are the tests? How do we demonstrate that our trains can safely ferry passengers? What scenarios and situations must we envision and address? The answers to these questions are emerging over time, and they will constitute the playbook for America’s high-speed rail systems of the future.
The high-speed rail system is already under construction in California, thanks to the support of the voters across the state, taxpayers across the nation and a vast universe of stakeholders who have contributed to our progress for many decades. We know that some might find it hard to see our momentum. But, like the dazzling trains we will be introducing to the American landscape, it takes patience and perseverance to gain momentum – and to attain what promises to be a breathtaking cruising speed.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Boris Lipkin was appointed as Northern California Regional Director for The California High-Speed Rail Authority in August 2018 by Governor Jerry Brown and reappointed in 2020 by Governor Gavin Newsom. In this role, he leads the delivery of the Silicon Valley to Central Valley line in the Northern California region by engaging regional stakeholders to develop the program and bring the benefits of improved transportation and mobility to Northern California.
Prior to assuming this role, Mr. Lipkin worked on the high-speed rail program in a variety of roles since 2011. Earlier, he served as the Authority’s Deputy Director of Strategic Planning where he helped develop the Authority’s business and funding plans.
Mr. Lipkin graduated from the University of California-Los Angeles with degrees in business economics and geography and earned a master’s degree in city planning with a focus on transportation at the University of Pennsylvania.