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.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.