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California high speed rail scaled back amid budget concerns

California high speed rail bridge under construction 3to2

The $77.3bn (£60.3bn) Californian high speed rail line is being scaled back due to budget constraints, the governor of California has announced.

In his annual state of the state address, governor Gavin Newsom said while he admired the “ambitious” vision of the previous governors, the project was too expensive and will take too long to complete.

“Let’s be real,” he said. “The project, as currently planned, would cost too much and take too long.”

In phase 1, the trains were due to run from San Francisco in the north of the state 600km to Los Angeles in the south at 320km/h in just under 3 hours. In phase 2, the ambition was then to extend the line to north east of San Francisco to Sacramento and south of Los Angeles to San Diego, over a total of 1,290km and inlcuding 24 stations.

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California high speed rail line map

Driving between San Francisco and Los Angeles takes around six hours.

Instead the high-speed line will now be scaled back a section in California’s central valley where construction has already started. The new line will now run between Merced 200km south east of San Francisco and Bakersfield 180km north of Los Angeles, a journey of around 260km.

The project had been under growing financial pressure after its backers, the California High-Speed Rail Authority, announced in January last year that the cost of phase 1 had risen from £50bn in 2016 to £60.3bn. This included a rise in cost of £2.2bn for the central section from £6.1bn in 2016 to £8.3bn in 2018.

The date for completion of phase 1 has also been delayed by four years from 2029 to 2033.

Around £2.3bn worth of contracts has already been awarded to contractors for the Central Valley section. In August 2015, Jacobs won the contract to build a 105km section of the line and in March 2016, Ferrovial Agroman won a £312M contract to design and build a 56km long section.

Network Rail Consulting (the international consulting arm of the UK rail authority) is a rail delivery partner, the role being led by the then Parsons Brinckerhoff – now WSP – as part of a £453M contract.

Newsom said to critics who want the project scrapped altogether, that billions of dollars would be wasted with nothing to show for it.

“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 said.

In the speech Newsom said there had been “too little oversight and not enough transparency” and announced new measures to publicly hold contractors and consultants to account for the money they had spent. This he said would include change orders, cost overruns and travel expenses.

The governor’s own economic development director Lenny Mendonca was also named as the new High Speed Rail Authority chair.

“Because, at the end of the day, transportation and economic development must go hand in hand,” said Newsom.

Despite announcing it would only build the central section of the line, environmental work across the whole of phase 1 will be completed.

High-Speed Rail Authority chief executive Brian Kelly said he was “eager” to meet the new challenge and it would continue to look for funding to complete the remaining sections of the line.

“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,” said Kelly. “We are eager to meet this challenge and expand the project’s economic impact in the Central Valley.

“Importantly, he also reaffirmed our commitment to complete the environmental work statewide, to meet our “bookend” investments in the Bay Area and Los Angeles and to pursue additional federal and private funding for future project expansion.

“We welcome this direction and look forward to continuing the important work on this transformative project.”

President Trump commented on the announcement in a tweet saying the whole line had been cancelled and he wanted £2.7bn worth of funding earmarked for the line to be returned to the Federal Government. He described the line as a “green disaster”.

Newsom responded to the tweet calling it fake news as the central section was still going to built and it would not be returning the money.

The new line will be America’s first high speed rail line.

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