This high-speed rail project is a warning for the US

California’s "train to nowhere" shows the challenges ahead.

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In 2008, voters in California passed Proposition 1A, giving the state the go-ahead to build a high-speed rail line. In theory, it was a great idea. The train would whisk passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles in less than 3 hours. Eventually it would also link San Diego and Sacramento. It was estimated that it would take until 2020 to complete.

But now it’s 2022, and so far California’s high-speed rail line is just a few concrete bridges and viaducts strewn across the rural Central Valley. Much of the plan had to be changed, redesigned, or even abandoned all together. Now the project is decades late and way over budget. And that isn’t just California’s problem. Because among the many factors that plagued the project, several are baked into the power structure of the US itself.

Watch the video above to understand just how difficult the US makes it to build infrastructure like California’s high-speed rail line.


California’s plan: 00:00
Local control: 1:48
Federal funding: 3:45
Lawsuits: 5:09
The experience gap: 6:37

Further reading and sources:

You can find more of Ethan Elkind’s high-speed rail research and analysis here:

And we highly recommend reading Ralph Vartabedian and Tim Sheehan’s reporting to learn more about how this project has affected communities on the ground:

The California-High Speed Rail Authority’s 2022 business plan was a key source for mapping the routes in this video:

Older business plans, like this one from 2005, helped us understand which alternate routes were being considered before the 2008 vote:

This is the 2015 CEQA lawsuit report we refer to in the video:

Overall infrastructure spending in the US is an important part of this story, and the Peter G. Peterson Foundation had a lot of helpful resources. The video uses data from this report in charts on state and federal spending:

Exactly how much the federal government ended up spending on this project and when can be hard to pin down, but funding agreement documents like the ones below are publicly available and very useful:

We also found this funding timeline from the Eno Center for Transportation extremely helpful in understanding the funding and cost projections related to CAHSR:

Timeline of California High-Speed Rail Cost Estimates


A key part of this story is understanding how far behind its peers the US is in building high-speed rail. This fact sheet on global HSR from the Environmental and Energy Study Institute offers valuable insights on that:

And this 2013 report from the California Rail Foundation helped us understand some of the political compromises made in the planning of this project:

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