Breaking the big (2): Is California High-Speed Rail a reality or dream?

The California High-Speed Rail Project has been in the works for over a decade, with discussions beginning in 1996 and the project officially approved in 2008. Construction began in 2013 with an original budget of $9.92 billion and a projected completion by 2022.

Breaking the big (2): Is California High-Speed Rail a reality or dream?


The California High-Speed Rail Project has been in the works for over a decade, with discussions beginning in 1996 and the project officially approved in 2008. Construction began in 2013 with an original budget of $9.92 billion and a projected completion by 2022. However, recent updates from the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) have pushed this timeline forward to 2033, with a revised budget of approx $105 billion. A 122% increase in time and approx 900% increase in cost.

“California is the most interesting example of cost escalation on a megaproject because it is so extreme. I have never seen a project with costs escalating so fast.”

Bent Flyvbjerg

The California High-Speed Rail history and milestones:

The CHSR project envisions an 800-mile high-speed train system connecting major cities in California, such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego. The idea took shape in the early 1990s and was shaped by the formation of the California High-Speed Rail Authority CHSRA in 1996. The goal was to create a more efficient and environmentally friendly transportation option to accommodate California’s growing population and to alleviate traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions. This would be achieved by building a high-speed rail with a speed of 220 miles/hrs that cuts the travel time between major cities by half, reducing trips by 90-100mins.

In 2008, California voters approved Proposition 1A, which authorized $9.95 billion in bond funding for the project. The project was divided into two phases:

Phase 1: 119 miles central valley that extends from Madera to Kern county, Bakersfield.

Phase 2: Is the rest of the 800 miles connecting San Francisco to San Diego.

The first phase is divided into 4 packages:

  1. Package 1 (CP1): CP1 covers a 32-mile segment from Avenue 19 in Madera County to East American Avenue in Fresno County.
  2. Construction Package 2-3 (CP2-3): CP2-3 covers a 65-mile segment from East American Avenue in Fresno County to one mile north of the Tulare-Kern County line. T
  3. Construction Package 4 (CP4): CP4 covers a 22-mile stretch within the Central Valley of California, extending from one mile north of the Tulare-Kern County line to Poplar Avenue in Kern County.

Major Milestones: From Inception to Recent Updates

  • The early 1990s: Conception of the CHSR project
  • 1996: Establishment of the CHSRA
  • 2008: Proposition 1A approval
  • 2013: Construction starts in the Central Valley
  • 2014: Alignment shift for the Palmdale to Burbank section
  • 2018: Construction begins on the first significant viaduct structure on the project near Fresno.
  • 2021: Approximately 119 miles of track are under construction in the Central Valley, 75% of utilities are relocated.
  • 2022: 422 of 500 miles of environmentally cleared
  • summer 2023, substantial completion of CP4
Only the central valley section is planned to be in operation by 2033 as per the CHSRA progress report of 2022

The top 5 reasons for CHSR delay:

If you ask anyone involved in this project or you try searching the internet for the top reasons for CHSR delay, the typical answer will be :

1- Right-of-the way issues

2- Environmental challenges

3- Technical challenges

4- Legal challenges

5- Funding shortage

But those reasons seem too obvious to be overlooked by CHSRA. Are those the only reasons, or were there other reasons that contributed to the 11 years delay and around 95 billion over budget?

First, Let us quickly examine those reasons and understand them:

Right-of-way issues:

Land acquisition has been an obstacle for the CHSR project; acquiring the land needed to build the project proved to be a complex and time-consuming process. This is due to land owners’ resistance to selling their land, the need for additional negotiations and compensation, and the challenges of securing land in densely populated urban areas.

Environmental challenges:

Getting the environment released and the environmental reports from related authorities have also posed significant delays for the project, as addressing environmental concerns requires additional studies and mitigation measures. This is due to the complex and sensitive ecosystems in California, the potential impacts of the project on local communities, and the need to meet strict environmental regulations.

Technical challenges:

Complex engineering solutions that require innovation for difficult terrain or urban environments. In addition, the need to comply with local special regulations and codes.

Legal challenges:

Multiple legal cases against the project have also affected project delays. The legal cases were from the community due to the project’s potential negative effect on the community or by bidders claiming that the bid process was not fair and the state procedures were not followed or by environmental bodies over environmental concerns.

Funding shortages:

The shortage of fund have delayed the project and resulted in a slower-than-expected construction schedule.

The system would be running today but for the many bad political decisions that have made it almost impossible to build.

Quentin Kopp, another former rail chairman who earlier served as a state senator and a Superior Court judge

Wasn’t CHSRA expecting all or some of those delays to happen in their business plans?

Straight answer Yes. The California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) did anticipate some/all of these delays in their business plans. The CHSRA has invested significant resources into planning and conducting environmental analyses, engaging with local stakeholders, and preparing for legal challenges from the community. They have also secured additional funding sources to ensure the project can progress despite budget constraints. All of this was clear on the business plans published on their website.

So, what went wrong?

CHSRA did extensive research and planning during the initial phases of the project, but what went wrong was the same in every big project, the desire to make something big and be completed as soon as possible.

Bent Flyvbjerg, a scholar known for his work on the planning and management of large infrastructure projects, calls this the “Optimism bias” and “the strategic misconception.”

When the CHSR project was approved in 2008, there was overwhelming support from everyone. Politicians, local communities, newspapers and the federal government, all favoured this transformational idea. This positive wave drove the decision of “let us start as soon as possible.” with over-optimism that the project would get support from everyone and the additional fund will be secure at the point of need. This mindset led to a strategic misconception and underestimating of the complexity of this monster project in different aspect as follow:

1- Underestimate the cost Vs gained benefits :

Studying the future benefits of the project and comparing it to the potential invested cost should be the first motive to push and approve any major infrastructure project. The proposal of CHSR from San Francisco to San Diego was an ambitious aim that underestimated the complexity of such a big project. Some researchers thought that a project proposal of this big and this length was a political move than a move to serve the community. The CHSR started with a strategic failure to envision the link between the northern and southern parts of the state as one project.

Starting the project with an early goal of linking Los Angeles and San Francisco was “a strategic mistake.” An initial line between Los Angeles and San Diego, would have made more sense.

Dan Richard, the longest-serving rail chairman

2- Underestimating the complexity of land acquisition and environmental reports

CHSRA underestimated the difficulty of acquiring the land from its owners. CHSRA assumed that the political support would ease the process of land purchase. This was a planning and management mistake. The whole right-of-way should have been assessed (if possible) from the beginning. In addition, California state has special natural and environmental emphasis. Again CHSRA thought that the political support would ease the environmental release process, which was not the case. The project must adhere to extensive environmental regulations to ensure it does not harm the environment and local communities.

3- Underestimating the terrain difficulty & change the route during construction

The Californian terrain is complex by itself; it involves mountains, desert and seismic areas. CHSR project needed complex engineering and construction to overcome that. However, CHSRA added to the complexity by changing the route during the construction, which increased the project time and cost.

4- Underestimating the coordination required between all stakeholders

CHSRA underestimated the massive coordination required between the community, contractors, politicians, environmental bodies, engineering firms and project management team.

5- Underestimating the skills and leadership required for this kind of project

CHSRA underestimated the need for advanced leadership and project management skills to complete this large-scale infrastructure project. The project was led at the beginning by politicians and marketing minds. CHSRA corrected this by appointing the current CEO, Brian Kelly.

Enlyten circle, California high, speed rail


The California High-Speed Rail project is doomed from the beginning because of the “Optimism Bias”. The need for something Big and quick before assessing the complete benefits is the disease of all mega infrastructure projects.

CHSR was a prime example of the complexities and challenges that come with large infrastructure projects. Strategic Misconception led to underestimating land acquisition complexity, environmental regulations, terrain difficulty, and leadership skills needed. All of this contributed to the delays in completion and ballooning costs.

Although such a complex endeavour can be daunting for even experienced planners, engineers and project managers to predict from the start. It’s important to make all the efforts and take the necessary steps to ensure that clients and contractors have enough time for planning, studying the benefits of the project, studying the risks & mitigations and choosing skillful leadership.


How Big Things Get Done: The Surprising Factors That Determine the Fate of Every Project, from Home Renovations to Space Exploration and Everything In Between . by Bent Flyvbjrg and Dan Gardner

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