Central Valley Spine
The 170-mile Central Valley line is under construction and will be the spine of California’s high-speed rail system. It, along with improvements to connecting services, could be in service by 2026.
The Central Valley line, running from Bakersfield to Madera, has been mocked by critics as a “train to nowhere” because of its distance from the coasts. But there are excellent political and economic reasons for starting the project there.
Massive infrastructure projects create a catch-22. Getting them over the finish line depends on building long-term political will. But it’s difficult to build will unless there are tangible benefits to taxpayers. And there are usually few benefits until the project is complete.
That isn’t the case in California. Ongoing upgrades to an Amtrak line between the first two high-speed segments—that is, between Merced and Gilroy—will slash travel times and deliver benefits long before the full high-speed line is complete.
Connecting Merced to Gilroy with high-speed rail is a monumental engineering feat. Since it will require tunneling through the mountains of the California Coast Range, it will take much longer than building the first two segments.
But in the meantime, the Central Valley and San Francisco-Gilroy segments will demonstrate the viability of true high-speed rail in the U.S.—and build political will for completing the project.
As in many states, there are striking inequalities between California’s urban centers and its rural, agricultural regions.
Rents are high and jobs are plentiful in the coastal cities. Rents are low but poverty and unemployment rates are high in many interior communities.
The Central Valley line tackles those inequalities head on.
It does so in part by multiplying the value of the region’s existing resources and making them much more accessible to residents.
For example, the Central Valley is home to more than 50 hospitals and healthcare centers. High-speed rail lays the groundwork for collaboration between them and opens up better access to specialized services. The net effect will be improved healthcare options and better care.
The Central Valley is also home to major universities that, collectively, enroll more than 325,000 students (UC Merced, Fresno State, and California State University, Bakersfield). The high-speed line will create an educational corridor that gives students better access to the school of their choice and fosters a culture of innovation and collaboration in the Valley.
But connectivity and better intra-regional travel are just half the story.
High-speed rail will fuse the Bay Area and the Central Valley into a single mega-region and help solve the dramatic imbalances between them. Monthly rents, for example, are $3,000 or more higher in the Bay Area than in the Valley.
Fast, frequent train service will give workers in the Central Valley—which is home to about 4 million people—a stress-free commute to the Bay Area. That means it will simultaneously address the affordable housing crisis on the coast and the 10 percent unemployment rates in the interior.
It’s a big win for the state’s economy and its workers.