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Documentary: High-speed rail's vexed crawl up California

Audrey Dilling


California’s high-speed rail system is the biggest infrastructure project in the state. This documentary is a deep dive into the project. We check in on what’s happening right now, what challenges the project faces, and who will be impacted by it.

The background

In 2008, voters approved funding for the bullet train that would get passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in just under three hours. Governor Jerry Brown has staked his legacy on its completion: that's expected in 2029, when he'll be 91 years old.

In this video from the High-Speed Rail Authority's groundbreaking ceremony, Brown talks about how he hopes he'll be alive to see this project through.


But right now, high-speed rail's fate is hanging on the new administration in Washington. President Donald Trump has promisedto invest in infrastructure -- including trains. But California’s Republicans in Congress have urged the Trump Administration to hold back a grant that’s considered crucial to the bullet train.If the grant isn't approved by the end of the month, costs could shoot up for the electrification of the Caltrain line -- which the high-speed rail project also depends on.

PART ONE: First stop, Fresno


Credit Audrey Dilling
The Tuolumne Street bridge, under construction this past summer.


High-speed rail officials say the budget is now $64 billion. And it could increase. Last month, The Los Angeles Times cited anew Federal Railroad Administration study that says a portion of the project that runs through the Central Valley could cost taxpayers 50 percent more than expected. But in Fresno, construction has already begun...two years later than planned.

We’re going to follow the route that should be rideable first — from the Central Valley to downtown San Francisco. Our first stop is Fresno, where construction is happening right now. Click the audio player below to listen to the first segment.

"I get a lot of those questions, 'Oh are you guys starting that project?' And I am always very happy to tell them, 'Yeah, we have six construction sites right now!'"

PART TWO: Corn nuts and the bullet train

Credit Angela Johnston
Kole Upton is worried about high-speed rail cutting through his farm.

On the highway in and out of Fresno, where construction is underway, you’ll pass lots of signs on the edges of farms that say things like "NO TO HIGH-SPEED RAIL" or "STOP THE CRAZY TRAIN."Some farmers think the billions earmarkedfor high-speed rail should instead be directed at building dams to store water - something they need a lot of right now.

The train is supposed to cut through hundreds of farms in the Central Valley. So, What does it mean when a train does that to your land? We’ll find out at Kole Upton’s corn nuts farm in Chowchilla. Listen above.

"It hits it on the lower end, so I can no longer say that I’m a NIMBY, not in my backyard, because now I’m an IMBY, in my backyard."

PART THREE: Will the train be affordable?

Credit California High-Speed Rail Authority
An illustrate mockup of the High-Speed Rail train speeding along Pacheco Pass.


High-speed rail officials hope the train will provide an alternative to airline and automobile travel, from San Francisco to Los Angeles. And it could affect people living closer to the Bay Area, as well. Expensive Bay Area home priceshave pushed families farther away from where they work, and closer to some Central Valley high-speed rail stops.

Right now, close to 65,000 people commute to the Bay Area from the Northern San Joaquin Valley, with commute times clocking in attwo hours and above.But would high-speed rail save more time and be affordable? Listen above to find out more.

PART FOUR: San Jose to San Francisco —easier said than done

Credit Jeremy Jue
Transportation engineer Jerry Cauthen at the base of the Transbay Terminal.

We’ve heard about the conflicts that come up when you send a train through fields of Corn Nuts. So you can imagine how hard it is to send a high-speed train through a heavily developed urban area.

KALW’s transportation reporter Eli Wirtschafter rides public transportation from San Jose to San Francisco to find out how high-speed rail could affect that busy route. Click the audio player above to hear more.

"San Francisco is becoming like Manhattan in density, it's got the transit system of Cincinnati!"

(Correction: An earlier version of this page stated that the deadline for the U.S. Department of Transportation to approve the grant for Caltrain's electrification was Friday, February 17. The 17th is the first day that the DOT can sign the grant; Caltrain officials say that it must be signed by March 1 to avoid delaying the project and incurring additional costs.)