The US’s delayed, over-budget, political high-speed rail line – sound familiar?

Despite having one of the world’s largest rail networks, the US lacks high-speed lines. Passenger trains are largely used by commuters, with intercity services operated by Amtrak, but highways and domestic flights have sidelined trains for leisure journeys.

However, in 2008 the country’s first fully electrified, high-speed rail line was given the green light in California. Connecting Los Angeles with San Francisco in as little as 2 hours 40 minutes, with a top speed of 220mph, California High Speed Rail hopes to ease traffic congestion, reduce pollution and better connect the state’s Central Valley, the 450-mile by 60-mile interior that runs from Bakersfield in the southerly Tulare Basin to Redding in the Sacramento Valley.

It aimed to open in 2020, and when fully complete, to encompass more than 800 miles of rail, and up to 24 stations along the backbone of California. To date, no track has yet been laid. The operator has yet to be determined and will be confirmed when the line is closer to completion, while a shortlist of potential suppliers for trainsets includes Siemens and Alstom.

The first phase of the line – from Merced to Bakersfield – is now projected to be operational by 2030, 10 years late. The second phase would see the line extended as far north as Sacramento and south to San Diego, but the project has been beset by financial and political hurdles and as yet there is no estimation for when it will be completed.

Costs, which were initially forecast to be in the region of $35bn (£28bn), could now reach $128bn (£101bn) when the network is fully complete. The California High Speed Rail Authority has said that the extension from phase one to Los Angeles sand San Francisco will progress “as funding becomes available” and stresses that “additional federal funding will be necessary to complete the system”.

The project launched with a $9bn bond authorisation in 2008, with much of the funding coming from the state of California. California High Speed Rail’s CEO, Brian Kelly, previously said that “we knew we’ve had a funding gap ever since the project started”.

Five years ago, president Donald Trump sought to recoup public money allocated to the project, which he deemed to have “failed”. By May 2019, his administration had pulled almost $1bn of funding from the railway, citing a failure have made “reasonable progress.” Governor Gavin Newsom called the move a “direct assault on California”.

However, last December, the US Department of Transportation under the Biden administration awarded the California High-Speed Rail Authority nearly $3.1bn in funding to continue construction, “the single strongest show of federal support to date”.

The award is part of a package of $8.2bn in new funding for 10 major passenger rail projects across the US including upgrades to busy rail corridors on the East Coast and expanding capacity at Chicago’s Union Station, one of the nation’s busiest rail hubs.

Meanwhile, the UK’s Network Rail Consulting has been awarded a £57.5m engineering contract to work on the development of California High Speed Rail. The international arm of Network Rail will “provide professional services to the authority for support and technical expertise.”

Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi said: “An electrified high-speed rail network will dramatically improve the quality of life in the Central Valley and up and down California.  These bullet trains will make travel quicker and easier… secure cleaner air for our children and help save our planet.”

With the US presidential election just 10 months away, the fate of the country’s political high-speed rail line hangs in the balance.

Meanwhile, a privately-run operator, Brightline West, has begun preparatory works on ground surveys and recruitment for its planned high-speed line in southern California.

It aims to open $12.5bn (£10bn) line between Las Vegas and Rancho Cucamonga, around 40 miles east of Los Angeles and with links to the city, by summer 2028 in time for the Los Angeles Olympic games. Its trains will run at speeds of up to 180mph. Brightline currently operates trains in Florida between Miami and Orlando at speeds of up to 125mph.