(Unedited) Podcast Transcript 408: California High Speed Rail Update
This week we’re joined by Northern California Director for High Speed Rail Boris Lipkin and Streetsblog San Francisco editor Roger Rudick to talk about high speed rail’s progress in California. Boris discusses what’s next for the High Speed Rail program, funding, and station design and Roger pushes back on recent negative media.
Below is a full unedited transcript of this episode:
Jeff Wood (1m 23s):
Boris Lipkin and Roger Rudick, welcome to the Talking Headways podcast.
Roger Rudick (1m 48s):
Glad to be here.
Boris Lipkin (1m 49s):
Thanks for having us.
Jeff Wood (1m 50s):
Well, thanks for being here, Boris, we had you on episode 2 84 right at the start of the pandemic, I believe May, 2020. And so things are a little bit different now, I imagine, than when we first talked. But Roger, we’ve never had you on the show before. So one thing we do is ask people to tell us a little bit about themselves. So Roger, if you could start and give us a little background on, on you and your interests and then we’ll go with Boris to kind of give people a refresher about where Boris is coming from.
Roger Rudick (2m 11s):
Sure. I’ve been a reporter who specializes in transportation issues, not to date myself, but about 30 years now. I’ve had stuff published in the New York Times, it’s been a while, but the LA Times, I worked for an NPR affiliate in Los Angeles for many years and for the last seven years I’ve been the editor of Streets Blog San Francisco, which obviously Jeffrey you know very well cuz we carry all your podcast. And actually in that time I’ve done a lot of coverage of California’s high speed rail project that’s been kind of a specialty of mine. That’s me,
Jeff Wood (2m 42s):
Boris Lipkin (2m 43s):
Sure. Boris Lipkin, Northern California regional Director with the High Speed Rail Authority. I’ve been in this role since 2018 leading our work in Neber in Northern California. But I’ve worked on the program since 2011, so in a variety of different roles. So had a chance to see, see it from different perspectives and sort of as the system has developed and grown and our work has progressed over
Jeff Wood (3m 4s):
Time. Awesome. Well so let’s get into California high speed rail, shall we? You know, Boris, last time we talked and last time you were here, the draft environmental impact work for the Merced to San Francisco segment was just going live. Where does that stand now?
Boris Lipkin (3m 17s):
It’s been a productive couple of years. And so we in Northern California actually just completed our environmental clearance for the two project sections, both for San Francisco, San Jose. We finished that in August and San Jose to Merced in April of this year. And so we now have full environmental clearance to connect from the Central Valley where we have construction already well underway with over a hundred miles of the system being built. And now we have the path to getting to the Bay Area. We also have in just the last year, finished the environmental clearance on two of the sections in Southern California and leaving just one, one more section between Palmdale and Burbank before we have the entire stretch between San Francisco and Los Angeles environmentally cleared.
Boris Lipkin (3m 57s):
And so when we talked in 2020, we only had environmental clearance in the Central Valley and we were of course advancing that work as quickly as we could. But now we have a lot more completed statewide and it’s been really important progress in all parts of the state during, you know, frankly the pandemic and everything else that we’ve all been dealing with over the last couple years.
Jeff Wood (4m 16s):
So what does that mean, environmental clearance? Like what does that mean for the whole project as it were? Does that mean you can start construction right away or does that mean you have to do something else? What’s the process there?
Boris Lipkin (4m 25s):
That’s a great question. So environmental clearance, it has a few, both specific and project related importances as well as some symbolic ones. On the project side. Being environmentally cleared means that you can go out and start doing things in the real world. So you can acquire right of way, start moving utilities outta the way ultimately do construction. It also means that you’ve advanced the project enough where you’ve defined it. You’re not looking at new alternatives or new routes you’ve locked in. You’ve committed to a specific set of alignments, a specific set of mitigations, you know, addressed the community impacts that have come along or environmental impacts that the project will address. And so you’ve really defined the program and defined what the scope is and what’s in and what’s out in a pretty comprehensive way.
Boris Lipkin (5m 10s):
The other thing that’s important about environmental clearance work is that it is often a marker of project readiness. And so when you’re talking about federal funding opportunities and the way that you know funding agencies tend to look at things is if you’re not environmentally clear, there’s a level of uncertainty around how long it might take you to get from if, if we give you a dollar, how long it’ll take you until you get that, you know, dollar on the ground. And so having gone through these steps, we’re in a different ballgame of talking to potential funders from the federal government and other places about what we need and how quickly we can put the funds to use in advancing the work. And then lastly, just from a statewide perspective, we have had a commitment to the federal government to fully and environmentally clear the system.
Boris Lipkin (5m 55s):
And that’s been one of those, you know, it, it goes back to our original grants that we got that basically helped fund the construction of the Central Valley, but also making sure that we are a statewide system, making sure that the rest of the system is also ready to go. And so all of those are the pieces of why this is really important, why these are such huge milestones and they take frankly a long time to do. But we have gotten a lot of that done. We are now over 420 miles of the 500 mile system that’s environmentally cleared. So it’s an important milestone that’s largely not fully, but largely behind us at this point.
Jeff Wood (6m 27s):
There’s a lot of construction going on and my brother-in-law Bakersfield always sends me pictures of structures when he is out in the Central Valley. So I kind of wanna know what’s going on there as well, you know, what’s the progress so far? I know that Roger and some of the other streets blog writers went on a tour to see kind of some of the construction, but what’s the feeling like in the Central Valley in terms of like how much is completed and how much is needed to finish it up?
Boris Lipkin (6m 48s):
So we have over a hundred miles under construction, 119 miles to be precise in the Central Valley. That’s the largest new rail line that we’re building anywhere in the country. It’s probably the, the biggest new rail line in the last hundred years frankly. But where things are at is we have three construction packages. The first one of those will be completed next year in 2023. The other ones are a little bit further be, you know, have a little bit more time to go on them. But if you’re going through the Central Valley, there’s dozens of structures that are up. Some of these are, are huge, you know, and you can see them from Highway 99 if you’re driving on there. If you wanna see some of the construction. We also have a website build hsr.com which has, you know, drone footage, videos, photos from all sorts of the different pieces of the system.
Boris Lipkin (7m 31s):
And you can even go on Google Earth and you’ll find it from space. There’s enough of the alignment that clearly see it from satellite imagery. And so that’s where the current construction is at. We’ve also recently awarded the contracts to design both the extensions that we need to do in the Central Valley to get to Merced into Bakersfield and the Central Valley stations. And so we’re really turning to the next pieces of work as well as the other kind of key contracts will be for the tracks and the systems, the electrification, the communications systems cetera, and for the actual trains themselves. And so we have a, a federal grant application in to purchase the first high speed rail train sets we’re gonna hear in the next few weeks whether that’s successful, but there’s lots of progress being made in in the valley in the construction.
Boris Lipkin (8m 13s):
And I think in the next month or two we’ll have an update on our board about sort of overall status that folks wanna tune in. That’s another great opportunity to hear all the nuances of where each part of that construction work is.
Roger Rudick (8m 24s):
Boris, when is the earliest that you might actually get a I speed rail train set? I know a few weeks ago Caltrain gave a tour of thereto equipment and it was just very impressive to see it in San Francisco. And when that Caltrain electrification project is done, you won’t be able to go very fast, but you’ll actually have someplace you could plop one down and run it under its own power and show it to people, which I think would do a lot for, for people in the Bay Area, people in LA who don’t get out to the Central Valley very often, Is there a timeframe for when that might happen?
Boris Lipkin (8m 54s):
Yeah, so first, you know, we’re super excited to see the progress on Cal electrification and seeing their emu, you know, that’s, you know, on a, on a different scale, but this is the kind of training that we’re talking about for high speed rail. And so modern electric equipment is something that’s very different that what many California trans riders have experienced. So I think that’s great and you know, we’re certainly very excited about that In terms of our rolling stock procurement, the goal is to get that going next year. That means that sort of towards the second half of this decade we would start to see some of the trains being tested and then ultimately put into service by the end of the decade. That’s the goal.
Roger Rudick (9m 30s):
Okay. And these are gonna be similar to what Amtrak is purchasing for? Its newest to sell sets?
Boris Lipkin (9m 36s):
I think those for sure. Yeah. I don’t think I know enough to, I know that Amtrak on the sellers doesn’t run, you know, it runs at I think about a maximum speed of 1 50, 1 60 miles an hour. Ours will need to go up to 220 miles an hour. So, you know, a little bit more horsepower. But you know, generally emu train sets that, you know, will be similar to if folks have experienced the high speed systems, you know, around the world, either in Western Europe or Asia, you know, we’re really looking for market proven train set technologies that are already out there in service and consistent with what kinda international best practices are.
Roger Rudick (10m 10s):
Boris, I’m, I’ve walked on it, but the image behind you is the Fresno River viaduct, is that
Boris Lipkin (10m 15s):
Right? This is the cedar viaduct. The
Roger Rudick (10m 17s):
Cedar, okay. So I’ve seen a lot of images of very dramatic structures in Central Valley and, and Jeffrey mentioned is relative who’s seen some of those, what’s I think much harder to conceptualize and maybe you can give some idea of how much of this has been done is the just miles and miles of basically just dirt right away between these huge structures, which are almost equally important, right? Cuz that’s, you know, the track line equipment’s gonna have to go down the whole thing. Can you give us a sense of how much of that is finished?
Boris Lipkin (10m 44s):
Yes, I mean the, the majority of that is basically ready to go. I can get you more precise numbers, you know, I think in terms of the, the miles of guideway that are complete, but it is miles and miles of, of this stuff. And each construction contract has a combination, it covers a stretch. And so the long lead time items are the structures. That’s why you see those being built first. The at grade guideway is a relatively, you know, simple in terms of the construction work involved. And so most of that has already been acquired. Most of that has been prepared. But I can get you a more precise number after in terms of the percentage, but it’s well over half, whether it’s two thirds or three fourths, I, I’d have to go and get you a more precise number.
Jeff Wood (11m 26s):
So we’ll step back from the specific technical details for a second. But there’s also been a lot of, I guess, press about high suit rail in California, especially from national news media. I think a lot of folks have seen that New York Times article from our favorite Ralph Farian circulating through the discussion realms of Twitter and other places. Roger, I’m, I’m wondering kind of what your first reaction is to seeing the headline, the article itself and the reaction to high speed rail from the eyes of a specific person who tends to inflame local advocates.
Roger Rudick (12m 0s):
So when that article came out, I guess it was a couple of weeks ago in the New York Times, and for people who aren’t familiar with it, it’s how California’s bullet train went off the rails, pretty facile headline. And actually everyone who knows me professionally and personally, or pretty much everyone sent me the link, Oh, did you see this new article in the New York Times? Not only did I see it already, but it’s the same writer that we’ve been dealing with for, I don’t know, maybe it’s 15 years now. He’d been writing for the Los Angeles Times and you know, his reporting is, how shall I put it? He, he’s continually catastrophizing the entire project. You know, occasionally points out things that are legitimate criticisms.
Roger Rudick (12m 40s):
I could bring them up with Boris, but I, I think we’re all familiar with them, but he always looks at everything in the worst possible light, but it’s kind of worse than that. He takes stuff out of context. A great example of that from the New York Times piece was he quoted, and you know, I, I don’t have the time or the energy to go through all the quotes, but I think they’re all more or less like this. He quoted Dan Richard who is the former chairman of the High Speed Rail Authority. I’ve interviewed Dan myself several times and sure Boris has dealt with him a million times. But the quote that he used, he’s only got three words actually in quotes in the New York Times article from Dan Richard. And it says A strategic mistake. So I looked at that. Now the rest of the paragraph is saying that, you know, outta the many disastrous mistakes that the high speed rail authority supposedly made was they decided to connect LA and San Francisco instead of LA and San Diego.
Roger Rudick (13m 32s):
So it’s sort of a paraphrase of Dan Richard and then it says, quote a strategic mistake as if it was a strategic mistake to try and connect LA and San Francisco in the first place. So I looked at that and I said, No, Dan didn’t say that. I know Dan, he did not say that. That’s impossible. So I reached out to him this morning and he got right back to me and sure enough, it was, yeah, I said those three words. The rest of it is completely out of context. So here’s what Dan was actually saying, and this is through my interpretation. You could maybe say I’m biased, but I’m sure Dan would back me up on this, that this is accurate. What he was saying is, if we want to get a foothold of real high-speed rail like they have in Japan, like they have in France, like they have in Germany in the United States, in retrospect it might have been a better approach to try and get two close end cities connected like LA and San Diego.
Roger Rudick (14m 20s):
So people in the United States could see a train going 200 miles an hour on their own soil. In other words, to sort of get people into the groove of it. That’s very different from saying the entire project is off the rails, which it isn’t. And Dan also said he very much supports the decision to go LA to San Francisco. It’s also kind of a stupid point to be making, you know, this late into the project by barbed. But again, it’s his pattern of just like trying to find any way, even if you’re changing the meaning of what somebody said to make the project look bad. I mean if we wanna talk about LA to San Diego in that decision, they actually did make attempts to do it. And it ran into the same political pushback that’s happened with this iteration of building a high-speed rail project in the United States.
Roger Rudick (15m 2s):
And also they have pretty good rail service between LA and San Diego. I personally think that would’ve been a stupid idea to build a sort of a duplicative service that’s gonna go a lot faster when you could invest some money in speeding up the existing surf liner service between LA and San Diego. Which, you know, they need specific investment. The the things actually closed down right now because of erosion. So they certainly need, you know, a few billion to recreate some of the right of way inland. But anyway, getting back to Ralph Farian, that’s been his pattern throughout his years of attacking the HighSpeed Rail project. And the most extreme case was, I think in 2011, Japan had just had one of the worst earthquakes in world history and I think the worst or close to the worst that they’ve ever had, we’re all familiar with it.
Roger Rudick (15m 46s):
It set off the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Shortly afterwards, Farian wrote a story about how complex it is to build HighSpeed Rail in a state that has earthquakes. It is complex, it’s difficult. Now I stop and I’m like, well of course the first thing you’d have to talk about is how did the Japanese HighSpeed rail system fair in the Sandi earthquake right in 2011? He didn’t mention it in the story, didn’t even mention it. She’s like, Well why didn’t you mention it? So I wrote a letter to the editor and I said, you know, there were, I think it was about 27 bullet trains near Sandi, near the parts of Japan that shook the most and nobody was injured, at least not seriously.
Roger Rudick (16m 26s):
It was a bad experience. I read some accounts of it, you know, the breaks came on automatically cuz they have protection systems that’ll detect the earthquake. Kind of like the Shake alert system that went off for us just a couple of days ago. You know, smoke coming out of the breaks. It was terrifying, it was rough, but everybody was fine. So it turned out the bullet trains were probably one of the safest places to be in Japan during that earthquake buildings were destroyed, thousands of people died. We know about Fukushima. So I wrote that letter to the LA Times and they called me back and said, it’s a good letter, we’re gonna publish it. And then they just didn’t, and they published all these really critical letters. So you’re sort of like, okay, is that bias? Like what is going on here? And all his stories are like that.
Roger Rudick (17m 7s):
Look, I, I think high speed rail is the solution to our missions problems. I think it’ll help reduce the number of fatalities on our roads. I’ve, you know, lived in the UK for a couple years in Brussels for about half a year. I used to ride it all the time over there. It’s convenient, it’s comfortable. If we had a high speed rail system today between LA and San Francisco, you would never get me on an airplane on that route. Like why would I do that to myself? It’s just so much nicer to take a high speed train. So, you know, I’m biased in favor I guess, but if someone were just biased against, you’d be able to read that. But his story is, man, I don’t know, it’s like I can’t bust into his bank accounts. I don’t have the resources to follow him around, but something’s going on here.
Roger Rudick (17m 47s):
This isn’t just a reporter who doesn’t particularly like high speed rail, it’s, it’s just weird. And I’m really disappointed in the New York Times for publishing them, frankly. And I’m disappointed in the LA Times for letting this go on for so long. I mean, I don’t know how many of our listeners were old enough to remember Judith Miller at the New York Times in the run up to the Iraq War, but they’ve had reporters who’ve done this at the New York Times actually, who just write incredibly biased stories and just do really, really bad journalism. And it just goes on and on and on. And you know, sometimes they get caught and fired and sometimes they don’t. And it’s unfortunate cuz people read that New York Times story and they assume it’s been vetted and they assume what they’re reading is balanced and legitimate and it’s not. It just isn’t.
Roger Rudick (18m 27s):
I mean that damn Richard quote, you know, what do you say about that? Like, why was that in a story? Well, we know why.
Jeff Wood (18m 32s):
Yeah. I think the most frustrating thing for me is that since I’ve been reading stories about this for such a long time, like opening up the New York Times article, reading the byline, and then just immediately closing it is, you know, my first reaction. And that’s what I did. And I even tweeted that. I was like, I opened it and I closed it. I didn’t even even know what was in the article and I went back and read it later obviously, because it’s just part of the job. But it’s frustrating and I think it’s frustrating to rehash a lot of the alignment decisions that were made. We had those arguments and you can make a case maybe, you know, for going up I five or something along those lines, but that’s the decision that wasn’t made. So I think that’s a frustrating thing to me. And basically playing it out on the national stage, like the New York Times has, is another frustration because then you get a lot of other people coming outta the woodwork and saying, Oh well, you know, maybe aviation’s just the best way to go because X, Y, and Z.
Jeff Wood (19m 20s):
And so the armchair analysis, the Monday morning quarterbacking coming out of the expert or O on Twitter was inflaming as well. And that’s not to say that there’s not, you know, issues with California high speed rail or we have disagreements about some of the things that have happened in the past. But where we are now with all this environmental clearance that Boris just mentioned, all the things that are going forward and the excitement that’s happening in the Central Valley about the construction, a lot of the jobs have been created, et cetera. And I probably sound like a booster as well, which is frustrating, I think to people. You know, somebody called me out for, I, I think I mentioned, you know, I have family in Bakersfield and I’d love to ride high speed rail to get there. And they’re like, well you have vested interests. And I was like, well, people have vested interests about stuff all the time related to this stuff.
Jeff Wood (20m 0s):
So I just find it’s frustrating.
Roger Rudick (20m 2s):
Well also you’re not biased if you’re honest, right? If you say, I have family in Bakersfield, here’s my point of view, okay, you’re presenting your potential bias upfront, right? And that’s a legitimate thing to do as a journalist. One of the reporters I work with, this is why I’ve never actually had to do it myself, but actually called Verian up and said, Hey man, what gives, And he claims he’s unbiased, he claims he’s just being critical. Like, no you’re not, you know, sorry. Now you know, if he has family that’s losing an orchard or something, I, I mean he’s gotta come out and say that if he’s getting a check from the oil companies or car companies or something, you know, who’s got, well he’s not gonna say that, but you know what I mean.
Jeff Wood (20m 40s):
So I wanted to ask Boris a question really quick, and Boris, this is something that obviously has been, you know, you’ve been paying attention to it for a long time, but the funding for the California high Speed Rail line, it’s been, I imagine frustrating to see a lot of politicians say in the Central Valley who probably have read the New York Times article and kind of use it as a prop to deny funding. And it’s probably been frustrating also to watch a lot of the discussions around these senate bills that have been passed, the infrastructure bill as well as the Inflation Reduction Act, which are weird names for these things, but it’s how it works, right? And so I’m wondering what your feelings are when there’s all this discussion about, okay, we’re having a hard time paying for it, but then a lot of the funding from national level sources and other sources is hard to come by because of some of the things that are written, or maybe just because of some of the quote unquote biases that Congress critters have.
Boris Lipkin (21m 25s):
Sure. I mean, I think the funding picture is, it’s an interesting one because there’s sort of the outside world view of it and then there’s the, you know, project view of some of the stuff. And sure, I would love to live in an environment which, you know, some other countries have, which when, you know, the population or the parliament or whatever approves the project, the project fully funded and then all it is is about delivery and executing the project. That’s not the world that we live in. And so California put the idea in frankly, including some of the alignment choices that we’ve just been talking about. And that were in that article before the voters in 2008 and said, Voters of California, do you want us to start building a high-speed rail system? And here’s what it will generally look like. Here’s where it’ll generally go.
Boris Lipkin (22m 5s):
Here’s the places it’ll connect. And that bond measure included a funding that would be one fifth of the cost of the system at the time. And it said, if you wanna actually spend this money on construction, which we want you to do, if the voters vote yes, which they did, then you have to find matching funds somewhere else. And at that point there was no nowhere else. But what you’ve seen in the last, you know, decade that I’ve worked on the program is every few years there’s a funding milestone. So first we had, you know, prop one A, then we got federal funds to match that and begin construction. Then a few years later we got cap and trade funds. That was sort of our first, you know, long term funding source from the state.
Boris Lipkin (22m 44s):
Then in the cabin trade system program got extended, giving us an extra runway on on those funds. We then start to see, you know, the new funding sources coming into play with the federal government out of the bipartisan infrastructure law. And we’re very excited about what that can bring. Just this last year in the legislature we had the appropriation of the remaining proposition one A funds, which gives us the next boost. And frankly that’s what we’ve seen with large infrastructure projects in the US, is that we do these things in building blocks and we find the funds to do the next piece and do the next piece and do the next piece. And eventually you have a whole system. Now would it be better, perhaps if we did it the way that many other countries have done it, which is, you know, basically fund the whole thing all at once.
Boris Lipkin (23m 31s):
Sure. But that’s never been the reality. And so we live in the world that we have where we certainly see the importance of leveraging the state funds that we have. And we’re very lucky to have strong support within the states. And frankly, you know, now clear direction in terms of our political leadership of how they wanted to see the program advanced. And then leveraging that with new federal funding opportunities. The bipartisan infrastructure law is a huge opportunity that, you know, hasn’t existed in the last decade plus. And so we’re certainly excited to see those programs at the federal level. And then even at the original level, you know, we have great examples of partnerships, everything from Caltrain electrification where we’re providing about a third of the funding and others are coming in with the rest of it to get that line electrified.
Boris Lipkin (24m 14s):
We have the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the MTC and the Bay basically saying that bringing high speed relative area is a regional priority for discretionary funds is part of their long range plan. And really, these are the kinds of things that it’ll take for the program to come about. And you know, I, I think we’ll continue to see the pattern of, you know, we continue to move forward, we advance the work, we position ourselves, we pursue funding, you know, from all sources. And the program continues to grow and gets implemented and the building blocks come together. So, you know, to me the funding picture is frankly brighter in sitting here in 2022 than it’s been, you know, at least for the last 5, 6, 7 years on the program.
Boris Lipkin (24m 54s):
So I think this is a good time for high speed rail and you know, certainly those are, you know, national conversations to be had about what kind of investments we wanna make. But I, I think California has been at the forefront of all sorts of areas and policy areas including, you know, reduction, looking to reduce emissions, looking at equity issues. And I think the country’s coming along. And so I’m, I’m very optimistic
Jeff Wood (25m 17s):
Now, Boris, you mentioned the political kind of alignment that happened in order to kind of give you direction. Roger, I’m wondering how that came about in terms of getting some of these Los Angeles legislators on board and, and some of the politics and the background of, of what’s been going on there because it wasn’t always smooth sailing to get No, it isn’t some folks on board and it still isn’t. Yeah. So I’m wondering if you have some updates on that related to some of the pushback that’s been coming from Southern California.
Roger Rudick (25m 42s):
Well, yeah, I, I hope that battle has been fought and won. Now, as Boris was saying, like they’ve got the money actually from the state, which is, what is it, 4.2 billion, which was promised. It was sort of the last part of the, the prop one A. This gives you an idea of how sort of weird and twisted the, the politics are. Ballot measure passed in 2008, only this year did they get the last part of it, the 4.2 billion, so that they can keep building with their building. Now I think what you’re referencing is that money was tied up for a long time because of two Southern California politicians, assembly speaker Anthony Rendon and Laura Friedman who represents, I believe it’s Burbank and the kind of northern part of Los, no, downtown Los Angeles.
Roger Rudick (26m 22s):
I, I forget where her district is, but it’s, it’s sort of that chunk around Burbank. You know, they had the power in the committee positions to jam up that money even though the voters approved it for well over a year. And it was, it was really frustrating because, I mean, it was very obvious they were trying to leverage the funds to get more money dedicated to Southern California. And by the way, a significant portion of funds were already going to transit projects in Southern California that connect to high speed rail. So, you know, this was sort of baked into the original proposition that all regions of the state are getting investments. I mean the fact that Boris is working in the Central Valley right now and in Northern California, it doesn’t mean nothing’s happening in Southern California. I mean, they built a whole new train station at Anaheim already with high speed rail funds.
Roger Rudick (27m 4s):
So they, they were pushing back against that last bit of funding from prop one a for kind of flexible reasons. Like they kept changing, it became very obvious they were using it as a kind of a bargaining chip to get more money. You know, for a long time they said, Well we shouldn’t electrify the Central valley, which is kind of the point of high speed rail. You run it off electricity so it doesn’t emit diesel fumes. So they were talking about, well let’s run a diesel train in the Central Valley. All the studies show that that would cause additional pollution in the Central Valley, which you know, as your relatives know, is already one of the most polluted areas of the country, if not the most polluted. You know, it means the trains would not be able to go 200 miles an hour. They would go significantly slower than that, probably about half that speed.
Roger Rudick (27m 46s):
They wouldn’t accelerate very well. You know, there’s a lot of issues with it jacking up the price of the overall project even more cuz you’d have to get the tracks ready to carry these diesel trainings and then convert it to electric. This is funny, it actually ties back into Ralph Farian at the LA Times as well cuz they were putting out reports that the, the law that the California voters actually approved never said that it had to be electrified in the first place. That is categorically false. And there were actually stories quoting them saying that unchallenged prop one A says right in it, it has to be electrified for people who don’t understand that the technical issue without it, it means there’s actually a high tension wire over the train that feeds power from an a power plant, you know, a solar power plant, a wind farm, whatever it is, it can be as big as it needs to be and the train is actually plugged directly into it.
Roger Rudick (28m 33s):
So the train is not carrying fuel that allows it to be much, much lighter and much more efficient. So when it, you know, when people kind of rejected the diesel idea, they invented the idea of running it on hydrogen or on battery power, which is pretty close to physically impossible. The technology we have is nowhere near being able to do this. And you know, I, a lot of people who are reading these articles in the LA Times in California, I think we’re very confused cuz they’re sort of like, well wait, we have Teslas now. I mean, battery technology has advanced and you know, without getting into the math too much, it has not advanced that much. Like this is more on the level of trying to figure out how to fly an airplane with batteries only.
Roger Rudick (29m 13s):
Like, it, it, it just doesn’t really work. You can run a train that slow speeds on batteries over short distances, but when you’re trying to go 200 miles an hour to make you competitive with air travel, it just doesn’t work. It doesn’t pencil out. I, I don’t know that we’d ever have the technology to do that. And frankly, even if we did, if you have the power supply being generated somewhere other than on the train, you’re still going to have a more efficient system. It’s just the way it works personally, I think it’s why oil companies don’t like this at all. I mean, it, it’s the reason the Europeans and the Japanese produce far less CO2 than we do and it’s not by inventing some new technology or heavy regulations, it’s just this is how they get around most of the time it’s by electrified trains.
Roger Rudick (29m 57s):
So if that answers your question, that’s what was going on in Southern California. Finally it became very obvious that Friedman and Rendon were, were proposing things that were not physically possible. I’d like to think some of that was from my own reporting and my own publications work that we, we were sort of trying to explain that this just doesn’t pencil out and eventually they relented and released those funds. But, you know, wasting a year did not make the California high speed rail project get cheaper. Right. You know, now, Boris, correct me if I’m wrong, like you’re now a year behind in putting out bids for high speed rail equipment, which is very hard to get cuz there’s a lot more people who need HighSpeed train sets to go on their tracks than there are manufacturers, right?
Roger Rudick (30m 38s):
And there’s, there’s a long lag in building these things. So like they jack the price up and then they’ll turn around and say, why is it so expensive? And this goes on over and over and over again in a vicious cycle. Welcome to California projects, right?
Jeff Wood (30m 49s):
It is frustrating. Now Boris, you all just let some contracts expire in order to do some rebidding. Can you explain that in a little bit more detail?
Boris Lipkin (30m 57s):
Yeah, sure. I mean we had started procurement in, in 2019 for tracking systems work. And obviously since that time and as we’ve been going, Roger talked about the appropriation request and that it took a little while for that to come about. Obviously we’ve seen the impacts of covid and now more recently inflation. And so we just decided to pull that back and rethink a little bit of the approach on that particular contract that make sure that we’re getting the most favorable terms, frankly that we can on the bids that would be coming in. But maybe the silver lining of all of that back and forth is, you know, ultimately at this point, and with the budget agreement that got reached, we now have clear direction from the legislature about the prioritization of making sure that we have electrified to track, you know, passenger rail service between big children, Merced.
Boris Lipkin (31m 43s):
That’s a clear priority that both the governor and the legislature is now behind. And it gives us a clear path of how that interim service can get going. So the other part of the deal was the governor ultimately agreeing to the establishment of an office of Inspector General, which is very similar to something that Caltrans has. And you know, I think oversight is good, you know, there’s good to come of that as well. And so this is a different moment from where we are. And so it’s a good moment to really make sure that we have a, a clear path forward that the contracting strategy aligns with the realities that we now face.
Jeff Wood (32m 17s):
Now Boris, I also wanna give you a hard time about the, you mentioned that some of the stations design work for the stations are being released. I noticed that for example, in King’s with a station there, there’s a lot of parking, there’s, and it looks really suburban as one of my friends, Eric Eland would say it’s called, would call it a beat field station to, you know, use a French term for their high speed rail where they kind of have these stations in the middle of nowhere that provide parking. I’m hoping most of them are going to be more urban type stations, but some of the renderings suggest otherwise. I’m curious what kind of the feedback that you all have gotten from those, from the renderings and from the station designs that have already come out.
Boris Lipkin (32m 53s):
Sure. And I think the thing for folks to realize is that each station is a little bit different, right? In, you know, switching to our region for just a second, and I’ll talk about Central Valley in a moment as well, but in our region what we’re talking about is all four of our Northern California stations. So San Francisco, you know, Millbury, sfo, San Jose and Gilroy, they’re all existing stations. And so what we’re not, we’re not talking about, you know, beat field stations, we’re talking about where transit services are today, right? And connecting the system to the regional transit network. That’s why we are going where we’re going. And you know, for example, in Gilroy we looked at a station that was in East Gilroy, which would’ve been away from the existing transit services and decided against it. So those are certainly, you know, part of our view of, of the world.
Boris Lipkin (33m 35s):
And that generally has been the approach, You know, you look at the kind central Valley cities, you know, in terms of where, where the station is in Fresno, close to Chinatown, close to downtown, you know, and Kings still area is a different example in that it’s basically located between two communities, Hanford and Visalia, on, on either side. There’s also a cross valley rail line that’s in the planning stages that would potentially connect at that station and, and have those east west connections. But in that part of the world, frankly, you probably are gonna need a little bit more parking, you know, because that’s how people currently get around. And if you wanna have riders, you know, get to those stations, that’s your best bet. But that doesn’t mean that that’s the, you know, the view of the world that we share.
Boris Lipkin (34m 18s):
You know, obviously as we get to places where there’s robust transit systems, that’s, that’s the goal. And you know, I think that’s part of the differentiation between us and for example, some of the private rail lines that have been talked about or even high speed lines in Texas and other places is we wanna be in downtown. We want to have those land use connections, we wanna have those transit connections and we want to have this be part of an integrated and and seamless statewide transit system and, and transportation system. And so, you know, I think it’s easy to sort of find, oh hey, there’s this station that based on its unique kind of context maybe isn’t the urban dream that folks would have, but I I think it’s, it would be maybe Roger was saying outta context to use that to say that that’s how all the stations are, because that’s not really the reality.
Roger Rudick (35m 8s):
I was a French exchange student in a little village outside of Leon, about an hour from Leon called Bevi right near the Leon Paris line. And when it was time to go to Paris to get back to New York where I grew up, we went to a little station called me, which is one of those basically beat field stations. Now most of the tgv, the high speed trains between Leon and Friends blow right through there at about 170 miles an hour. That’s 1980s. Technology went a hundred seventy, a hundred seventy five miles per hour. But there were a handful of trains that pulled off the main line and stopped there and Macon was set up to serve the village of El France and Belleview and, and all the towns that are kind of, you know, a little too far north of Leon to bother going the wrong direction to get your train.
Roger Rudick (35m 52s):
And yeah, it’s just a, you know, it’s a couple of platforms and a little shed basically, and it’s surrounded by farms in a parking lot. So, you know, there’s, there’s room for that. If the two LA station were gonna get 20 trains a day, I would say that’s ridiculous. But if they get, you know, a couple of trains a day for the farming communities or even four trains a day or whatever it’s gonna be, you know, I think that’s great. I mean, people in the Central Valley, even in, you know, rural farming areas have the right to get to San Francisco and Los Angeles as well.
Jeff Wood (36m 21s):
Well that’s another interesting point about, you know, the discussions about California high speed rail as well and, and the alignment decisions that we’ve made. I I don’t know if people actually understand how many people live in the Central Valley. I, I, I think it’s, folks probably think that everybody lives in the Bay Area and in Los Angeles when, you know, there’s three and a half million plus people in that area that will benefit from connecting to the two of the largest regions in the world. And so it’s, it’s interesting to have that discussion as well and, and kind of remind people that there’s a lot of people that live in the Central Valley and I think that’s something that is forgotten on some of these things like the New York Times article or the, the, the train to know where discussions that that actually is not nowhere, it’s actually somewhere. And I think that that’s really important part of it as well.
Roger Rudick (37m 1s):
I mean I think it’s just ignorance borne of everybody flying or taking, you know, I five like if you take 99 and you go through those towns, you’re like, oh, there’s a lot of people who live here.
Boris Lipkin (37m 11s):
Yeah, I mean I think Jeff, your point was spot on about the Central Valley and the, the comparisons that I tend to use, just to give people a sense from who might not be from California and having spent some time living in the Northeast corridor is, you know, this population of Fresno is pretty close to the population of Baltimore and I don’t think anybody would think of Baltimore as, you know, not a substantial city on, on the northeast corridor. Fresno’s larger than the city of Atlanta. Obviously Atlanta has a large metropolitan area around it, but these are not small places. And I think part of the reason that they get so overlooked is that geographic isolation that you have where the Central Valley Times is a little bit of an island, you know, not really connected to the coastal major metropolitan, you know, larger metropolitan areas of the barrier and you know, the Los Angeles basin and part of the system.
Boris Lipkin (38m 3s):
And it gets into that argument about I five and all those other things is about connecting those different regions of California together and making it seamless. And I remember talking to some folks who worked on the German rail system and of course they had all the similar goals about, you know, connecting their cities, you know, increasing mobility, reducing emissions, all of that was part of the reasons why Germany invested so heavily in rail and high speed rail to connect its population. But there was also an overarching kind of policy objective that the system was part of which was the reunification of the country when East Germany and West Germany became one again. And tying the two parts of the country together and building those physical transportation linkages in, in a way that at least during, you know, the, the Cold War and the Iron Curtain that really didn’t exist in the same way.
Boris Lipkin (38m 53s):
And I think you can sort of take that policy lens on the California system and look at the importance of connecting our regions together, what that means from an equity standpoint. You know, the Central Valley has some of the worst air quality in, in the state or in even in the country. It has generally higher levels of unemployment and other, you know, economic challenges that, you know, we are all gonna be better off as a state if we are more of one state and we’re talking about our global competitors, you know, in the news, I think there was just an announcement that we might have just passed Germany as the fourth largest economy in the world. And so these are the investments that others are making. And so I think the Central Valley is a critical part of that and it’s a critical part of how our state operates.
Jeff Wood (39m 37s):
Roger, do you have any closing remarks? Thinking about high speed rail in California?
Roger Rudick (39m 41s):
Yeah, just to give people a sense of proportion here, you know, you always hear about how much this is costing us, right? So the budget of Caltrans, I just look this up is about 20 billion every year. So nearly every penny of that going to freeway maintenance and widening 90 nines getting widened. I was just up there a few months ago and got to look at all the work getting done. The state budget is 308 billion I think this year. The approved budget. Boris checked me on any of this if I’ve got ’em off a little bit. And we just finished a year about arguing about 4.2 billion to go to the high speed rail project that was approved in 2008.
Roger Rudick (40m 21s):
So, you know, when I hear this project is very expensive, yes it is the amount of money that we are squandering on continually widening highways so that they can get jammed up with traffic all over again, which all have to be maintained and patrolled by CHP and you know, given seismic retrofits. And then there’s the toll, all the collisions and the air pollution. I don’t know, the high speed rail project looks pretty cheap to me.
Jeff Wood (40m 49s):
Not to mention you can’t expand the runways at SFO Oakland LAX or Burbank, just you can’t. So there’s a big argument there as well.
Roger Rudick (40m 57s):
I mean a little southwest flight from, you know, Oakland to Burbank or you know, San Francisco to LA takes just as much runway space as an airbus, as a big trans oceanic airplane. And those planes are gonna become unnecessary when a high speeded rail project is operational.
Jeff Wood (41m 12s):
I wanna have that discussion at some point in the future has been a lot of research on airline emissions and high speed rail and those types of things, which I’ve been frustrated by, but I’ll save that for another time. Boris, do you have any closing remarks?
Boris Lipkin (41m 22s):
Yeah, I mean, I think the thing that I would sort of leave your listeners with is a little bit of the bigger picture perspective on the project that sometimes gets lost when we’re talking about, you know, specific headlines or the day to day of things. But when I started working on the program in 2011, there was really a decision to be made, you know, about are we gonna do high speed rail in California or not? I mean the voters had approved it, we had just been awarded the first T of federal funds and there was a decision to make, do we start construction or not? And at that point there was a real decision to be made about, or not being one of the options that we could do. We had seen, you know, other states with Republican governors send money back, Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida. And that was a real conversation. Obviously you can see lots of progress that’s been made over the last, you know, decade since that conversation.
Boris Lipkin (42m 5s):
But the reality of things in California with high speed rail is no longer are we gonna do high speed rail, rail or not. It’s gonna be, you know, how much high speed rail are we gonna do? How fast? And that’s a very different set of conversations to be had because there’s no undoing, you know, dozens of structures. There’s no pulling back from the investments that have been made. And so it’s about how do we maximize the benefits out of those existing set of investments, How do we tee up the next ones? And so this program will have challenges. It’s complicated, it’s big, it’s, you know, it impacts lots of people but it also provides big benefits.
Boris Lipkin (42m 45s):
And I, I think you’ll see some of that start to turn when we really get trains going. The one historic comparison that I love is there’s a headline from San Francisco Chronicle from I think about 1965 while BART system was being built and it’s, you know, front page areas, you know, transit fantasy, billion dollar transit fantasy or something like that. And it’s very critical of what was happening with BART at the time. Lots of controversy, you know, issues and construction and all, all the things, you know, not, not too dissimilar. And then you can find the article from 1972 when the BART system opened and the San Francisco Chronicle article is all about how you ride the system, how it’s a wonderful modern way of getting around, here’s how you pay your fairs.
Boris Lipkin (43m 25s):
And all of that was forgotten. And so we’re living in the moment when the controversy is raging. But I think we’re past that point of no return from where, you know, things were in 2012 when that was an actual debate. And I think you’ll see the same excitement because there’s a reason that we’re doing what we’re doing and you know, the, the costs are big, the the benefits are huge and that’s really what this is about. And it’s about the state being ambitious and delivering something that’s different than what we have today, frankly, in terms of our transportation and rail network. And I think that’ll be felt cuz if you’ve experienced it, you know what, what that’s like. And it’s something that, you know, you at this point you can’t really take back.
Boris Lipkin (44m 6s):
So I guess that’s what I would leave you with is maybe some additional optimism that we’re on the right path. There’s more work to do. Sure. But it’s in a healthy place at the moment.
Jeff Wood (44m 16s):
Awesome. Well we’ll leave with that, Boris and Roger, thanks for joining us. We really appreciate your time. My
Boris Lipkin (44m 21s):
Pleasure. Thanks for having me.