Why California should see its high-speed rail project through

Broken ground. Image: Getty.

In California, there is now a serious proposal afloat to divert dedicated high-speed rail money from the construction effort predominantly taking place in the San Joaquin Valley, located in the state’s centre. It would go instead to what are known as “bookends” projects in the San Francisco Bay Area along the peninsula between San Francisco and San Jose (if not beyond) on Caltrain, and on Metrolink in the southern part of the state between Anaheim and Burbank. Caltrain and Metrolink are heavy rail, commuter-train operations.

If this proposal gains traction and funds are actually diverted – billions, I hear – the commuter-rail services in question will reap substantial improvement benefits. But what the state’s mid-section will be left with, I suspect is a 119-mile-long rail corridor connecting small rural villages (Madera and Shafter in this case) with the one large city in between (Fresno), and one built to high-speed rail standards but bereft of high-speed-rail trains. In lieu of actual and true high-speed rail, America’s national passenger rail service provider, Amtrak, is the entity most likely to use this section of track. And the trains will most probably be diesel-powered to boot.

Should this become the reality, I believe California high-speed rail can forever be kissed goodbye. The motivation and urgency for seeing the entire project through will, in all likelihood, fall by the wayside.

There are myriad reasons why mid-state bullet train construction should continue.

Firstly, Golden State voters apparently thought what was coming down the pike was a network of high-speed tracks linking Los Angeles/Anaheim and San Francisco (520 mile Phase 1), with separate extensions to San Diego and Sacramento (280 mile Phase 2) to follow, covering a distance of 800 miles in all. It is a grand plan to say the least.

No secret, meanwhile, is that the high-speed-rail program has faced staunch opposition. It’s been hamstrung by mismanagement and cost overruns. It’s been litigated against. All these factors are partly responsible for construction delays; all have slowed building progress.

California high-speed rail building in the Valley commenced 16 June 2015 on the Fresno River viaduct in Madera County; the formal ground-breaking took place on 6 January 2015 in Fresno. In the latest plan, high-speed rail is being constructed between Madera and Shafter, covering a distance of 119 miles, with the expectation that ultimately 171 miles of track in Bakersfield (in the south Valley) and Merced (in the north Valley) will be completed. The intent here is to provide electrified high-speed train service to those city-pairs no later than 2028.

The proposal in question seeks to redirect between $5bn and $6bn to the bookends sections, leaving a total $20.4bn, of which $14.4bn to $15.4bn will be expressly for high-speed rail construction work in the valley. Arguably, constituents should be provided with what initially they thought they would be getting. At this late date, to do – or settle for – anything less than the full allocation just isn’t right.

Moreover, with Bakersfield-to-Merced a key part of the initial California bullet-train operating segment – a so-called high-speed rail “starter” line if you like – will come five key stations: Bakersfield, Kings/Tulare, Fresno, Madera and Merced. The last of these could serve University of California students, faculty and staff there well.

These new stations provide an incredible opportunity for location-efficient, medium- to high-density, mixed-use, transit-oriented development to sprout, providing tremendous potential for increased bullet-train ridership. This will in no way be a “train to nowhere” as some have suggested.

Case in point: at Merced, there are plans for a new multimodal “union” station, served not only by high-speed trains but Altamont Corridor Express trains too. High-speed train riders and others will be provided with the means to travel to San Francisco Bay Area destinations, most notably San Jose, via the ACE connection.

For the uninitiated, via bullet-train construction work, dollars by the billions have been injected into the state economy.

And, let’s not forget the quality of San Joaquin Valley air. The region, year after year, sees some of the worst air pollution in the country. The Valley has consistently topped the American Lung Association’s most air-polluted list. In response, not only is the project being built using the most environmentally-friendly equipment and methods going, but electric trains running on nothing but renewable energy – solar and wind power, for example – will do much to reduce fine particulate matter and ozone and other pollutant emissions in air further, as well as to contribute to the state meeting its greenhouse gas emissions-reduction goals. Where else do you find that?

With increased numbers of train riders, drivers on paralleling motorways will feel the impact – there will be less motor vehicle traffic. To some degree there will be less need to build additional runways and gates at airports in state, even as its population grows an estimated 25 per cent from 40 million today to an estimated 50 million by mid-century.

Once in full swing, the train will be a momentum generator for driving further bullet-train development along with patronage numbers both in the north and south state – make no mistake.

There is that now-popular expression coming immediately to mind: “Build it and they will come.”

Alan Kandel is the author of the ebook, “The Departure Track: Railways of Tomorrow”. You can buy a copy here.

 
 
 
 

Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.


…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.