High-Speed Rail in Small, Dense Countries
Four years ago I brought up the concept of the small, dense country to argue in favor of full electrification in Israel, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Right now I am going to dredge up this concept again, in the context of intercity trains. In a geographically small country, the value of very high speed is low, since trains do not have stretches of hundreds of kilometers over which 300 km/h has a big advantage over 200 km/h; if this country is dense, then furthermore there are likely to be significant cities are regular intervals, and stopping at them would eliminate whatever advantage high-speed rail had left.
Nonetheless, unlike with electrification, with high-speed rail there is a significant difference between Israel and the Low Countries. Israel does not have economic ties with its neighbors, even ones with which it does have diplomatic relationships, that are strong enough to justify international high-speed rail. Belgium and the Netherlands do – the high-speed rail they do have is already internationally-oriented – and their problem is that they have not quite completed their systems, leading to low average speeds.
The situation in Israel
Israel is a country of 20,000 square kilometers, with about 9 million people. Both figures exclude the entirety of the Territories, which are not served by intercity trains anyway, and have such geography that not even the most ardent annexationists propose to build any.
The country is long and narrow, and the maximum north-south distance is almost 500 km, but the cities at the ends are very small, and the population density in the South is exceptionally low. Eilat, at the southern tip of the country, is a city of 52,000, and is 170 km from the nearest Israeli city, Dimona. A low-speed line for freight may be appropriate for this geography, offering an alternative to the Suez Canal, but there is no real point in investing in high passenger rail speed. For purposes of fast intercity trains, the southern end of Israel is Beer Sheva, less than 100 km from Tel Aviv.
In the Galilee the situation is not quite as stark. The main barrier to intercity rail development is not low population density – on the contrary, the Galilee averages around 400 people per km^2, not counting the Golan Heights. Rather, the physical and urban geographies are formidable barriers: the mountainous topography forces all railroads that want to average reasonable speed to tunnel, and the cities are not aligned on linear corridors, nor are there very large agglomerations except Nazareth, which is about 100 km north of Tel Aviv. A low-speed rail network would be valuable, tunneling only under mountainous cities like Nazareth and Safed, but even 200 km/h in this region is a stretch, let alone 300. Thus, just as the southern limit of any fast intercity rail planning in Israel should be Beer Sheva, the northern limits should be Haifa and Nazareth.
The box formed by Haifa, Nazareth, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Beer Sheva, less than 200 km on its long side, is not appropriate geography for high-speed rail. It is, however, perfect for medium-speed rail, topping at 160 or 200 km/h. The Tel Aviv-Jerusalem high-speed line, built because the legacy line is so curvy that it is substantially slower than a bus, only runs at 160 km/h for this reason – the distance along the railway between the two cities is 57 km and there’s an intermediate airport stop, so the incremental benefit of running faster is small. The Tel Aviv-Haifa line, built in stages in the 1930s and 50s, runs in the Coastal Plain and is largely straight, capable of 160 km/h or even faster. The Tel Aviv-Beer Sheva line is slower, but it too can be upgraded. In all of these cases, the target average speed is about 120 km/h or perhaps a little faster. A high-speed train would do better, but reducing trip times from 40 minutes to 30 just isn’t worth the expense of a new line.
Nazareth is the odd one out among the major cities, lacking a rail connection. This is for both geographical and sociopolitical reasons: it is on a hill, and it is Arab. Reaching Nazareth from the south is eminently possible, on a line branching from the Coastal Railway in the vicinity of Pardes Hanna, continuing northeast along Route 65 through Kafr Qara and Umm al-Fahm, and entering the city via Afula. Modern EMUs can climb the grades around Umm al-Fahm with little trouble, and only about 4 km of tunnel are required to reach Nazareth, including a mined underground station for the city. Continuing onward requires perhaps 8 km of tunnel.
However, so far Israel Railways has been reticent to enter city centers on tunnels or els. Instead, it serves cities on the periphery of their built-up areas or in freeway medians. It would require little tunneling to enter the center of Netanya or Rishon LeTsiyon, and none to enter that of Ashdod or Ashkelon. This is the result of incompetence, as well as some NIMBYism in the case of Rishon. Nonetheless, such short tunnels are the right choice for regional and intercity rail in those cities as well as in Nazareth, which poor as it is remains the center of Israel’s fourth largest urban agglomeration.
What if there is peace?
In Belgium and the Netherlands, there is 300 km/h high-speed rail, justified by international connections to France and Germany. What if Israel reaches a peace agreement with the Palestinians that thaws its relationships with the rest of the Arab world, justifying international connections to present-day enemy states like Syria and Lebanon as well as to cold friends like Jordan and Egypt?
The answer is that the Levant writ large, too, is a relatively small, dense area. The Palestinian Territories have even higher population density than Israel, as does Lebanon. Jordan and Syria, on the desert side of the mountains, are less dense, but if one drops their low-density areas just as one would drop Israel south of Beer Sheva, the box within which to build intercity trains is not particularly large either.
Amman is 72 km from Jerusalem; it’s an attractive target for a continuation of the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem railway at 160-200 km/h, the main difficulty being the grades down to and up from the Jordan Valley. Beirut and Damascus are both about 240 km from Tel Aviv on the most likely rail routes, via the coast up to Beirut and via Nazareth and Safed up to Damascus. The only connection at a truly compelling distance for 300 km/h rail is to Aleppo, which is not large enough and is unlikely to generate enough ridership across the language and political barrier to be worth it.
Egypt presents a more attractive case. Cairo is enormous, and there is a whole lot of nothing between it and the Gaza Strip, a perfect situation for high-speed rail. However, this is firmly in “we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it” territory, as none of the required construction really affects present-day Israeli intercity rail planning. It’s not like the Levantine Arab capitals, all of which lie along extensions of important domestic Israeli routes.
Integrated timed transfers
The Netherlands and Switzerland both have national rail networks based on the idea of an integrated timed transfer, in which trains from many destinations are designed to reach major nodes all at the same time, so that people can connect easily. In Switzerland, trains arrive at every major city just before :00 and :30 every hour and depart just after, and rail infrastructure construction is designed to enable trains to connect cities in integer multiples of half hours. For example, since trains connected Zurich and Basel with Bern in more than an hour, SBB built a 200 km/h line from Olten to Bern, shortening the trip time to just less than an hour to facilitate connections. Every half hour this line carries a burst of four trains in seven minutes in each direction, to ensure trains from many different destinations can connect at Bern at the right time.
I have argued against this approach in the context of Germany, proposing high–speed rail instead specifically on the grounds that Germany is a large country with many pairs of large cities 500 km apart. In the context of the Netherlands, the integrated timed transfer approach is far superior, which is why it is adopting this approach and refining it in ways that go beyond Switzerland’s decentralized planning. Belgium, too, had better adapt the Swiss and Dutch planning approach. What about Israel?
In Israel, timed transfers are essential to any intercity rail build-out. However, a fully integrated approach is more difficult, for three geographical and historical reasons. First, most intercity traffic flows through one two-track mainline, the Coastal Railway. Using advanced rail signaling to permit many trains to enter Tel Aviv at once is fine, but it would not be the everywhere-to-everywhere system of more polycentric countries like Switzerland.
Second, Israeli metro areas are really a mixture of the mostly-monocentric contiguous sprawl of France and the Anglosphere and the polycentric regions of distinct cities of the Netherlands and the German-speaking world. Jerusalem’s agglomeration is entirely Anglo-French in this typology, without significant independent cores, and Tel Aviv and Haifa both have substantial Anglo-French cores ringed by far less important secondary centers. The significant secondary centers around Tel Aviv and Haifa are edge cities within the built-up area that may be near a rail line, like Herzliya Pituah and the Kiryon, but are never independent town centers like the various Randstad and Rhine-Ruhr cities.
And third, Israel completely lacks the large railway terminals of Western countries that built their mainlines in the 19th century. Integrated pulses require one station track per branch coming out of the station, since the point of such timetables is to have trains from all branches arrive at the station at once. Within Germany there is criticism of the Stuttgart 21 project on the grounds that the new underground Stuttgart station will only have eight tracks, whereas there are about 14 planned branches coming out of the city.
So does this mean timed transfers are a bad idea? Absolutely not. Israel Railways must plan around timed transfers at junction stations like Lod, the closest thing the Tel Aviv region has to a German-style secondary core, as well as at future branch points. Entering secondary city centers like Netanya and Ashdod would involve tunnels and els, but more significantly to the national network, these would all be branches, and adding more branches to the mainline would require planning better transfers at the branch points and in the center.
Moreover, Israel still has significant intercity bus service, and most likely always will. Timed connections between buses and trains at outlying terminals like Ashdod are a must, and nationwide coordination of bus schedules to enable such connections is a must as well.
Intercity rail for a small, dense country
The situation in Israel – as in Belgium and the Netherlands – favors a different kind of rail development from that of larger countries like France and Japan. Short distances between major urban areas, frequent stops for intermediate cities, and cities that are not really located along easy lines call for the following design principles:
- The maximum speed should be 160-200 km/h – lines should not be designed for higher speed if that requires more tunneling or bypassing existing mainlines, unless there is a compelling international link.
- All trains should be electric, and run electric multiple units (EMUs) rather than locomotives, making use of EMUs’ fast acceleration to serve many stops.
- Significant cities that do not have rail links or have circuitous links should get new lines, using short tunnels or viaducts if necessary to reach their centers.
- Transfers at junction stations should be timed, as should transfers between buses and trains in cities with significant travel volumes to areas not served by the railway.
- The state should coordinate timetables and fares at the national level and engage in nationwide integrated planning, since a change in one city can propagate on the schedule 100-200 km away.
In Israel, public transportation planners understand some of these points but not others. Rail planning is based on medium rather than high speed; there are some calls for a high-speed train to Eilat, but so far what I’ve seen is at least partly about freight rather than passengers. The state is electrifying most (though not all) of its rail network – but it’s buying electric locomotives as well as EMUs. New rail lines go in freeway medians and on tangents to built-up areas, as if they were 300 km/h lines, rather than low-speed regional lines for which if people have to drive 5 km they may as well drive the remaining 50 to their destination. Schedule coordination is a mess, especially when buses are involved.
Going forward, Israel should aim to have what the Netherlands has, and even more, since the Netherlands has not fully electrified its network, unlike Switzerland. Israel should aim for very high traffic density, connecting the major cities at a top speed of 160-200 km/h and average speed of about 120 km/h, with easy transfers to slightly slower regional lines and to buses. Its cities may not be Tokyo or Paris, but they’re large enough to generate heavy intercity traffic by public transportation, provided the rail network is there.
There are small, dense nations like Israel, Netherlands and Belgium, and then there’s Bangladesh and Java, Indonesia. But I guess that principles here are also applicable there? Maybe Indonesia cancelling HSR isn’t so bad after all.
In big, dense areas, HSR is especially good, because there’s going to be high ridership eventually. Examples include Japan, Java, Egypt, and Pakistan. Bangladesh and India are more complicated – both have about the worst possible distribution of cities for HSR, they’re just so big and dense that they can still make it work if they don’t do stupid things like build a turnkey Shinkansen system with Japanese techniques that cost the same as in Japan in exchange rate terms. China is really the same thing as India and Bangladesh here – the distribution of cities in China Proper isn’t really great for HSR, it’s just that the cities are so big and there are so many of them that it works.
To me Taiwan and South Korea are the best example of a small and dense, yet isolated countries that have built HSR. This discussion feels very incomplete without mention of these places that are much more similar to Israel than any place you have listed, in that they are surrounded by sea, tightly guarded militarized borders, and hostile nations. If Israel is looking for an example to follow I would think those would be it.
Taiwan and South Korea are both much bigger than Israel, and both have their largest and second largest cities at opposite ends of the country.
South Korea also has one obvious HSR line yet to build – a tunnel or bridge to Jeju, the endpoint of the (by far) busiest air route in the world…
Do you mean the downgrading to medium-speed (140-160km/h)?
Is there any chance the Israeli reticence to tunnel has to do with a desire to avoid extensive archaeological surveys? I’ve heard that in Rome they had to build the newest metro line unusually deep to avoid the archaeological stratum of human civilization, and even then it seemed every time they tried to build an escalator shaft construction stopped because they ran into the remains of another temple. And many Israeli cities are on sites that have been occupied for much longer than Rome.
The new Jerusalem train station is in a deep tunnel, and Yisrael Katz even mooted the idea of extending the tunnel east toward the Old City and the Wailing Wall. In contrast, tunneling under Netanya and Rishon should be pretty easy, and even in Nazareth, I imagine a tunnel would pass underneath any archeological sites.
While far less dense than Israel or the Netherlands, Portugal is a small country that feels like a good candidate for HSR (maybe not 300 km/h, but definitely 200), thanks to the linear distribution of its cities: a line linking Lisboa to Porto via Coímbra serves more than half of the country’s population. The current line is not terrible either, so maybe it could be done by straightening and/or four-tracking parts of it.
With some more effort, they could extend it to Braga and further north to the Spanish border to link it to the Galician HS network — a stronger-than-average international connection.
The other obvious HSR connection for Portugal is the one that they announced in the 1990s and then cancelled as a result of the global financial crisis – the international line from Lisbon to Madrid, The Spanish are still (albeit very slowly) building the line from Madrid to Badajoz (very close to the border), so the only requirement would be to build from Lisbon to the border. It’s another good international connection, and Madrid is a far bigger city than any in Portugal.
Yup, the Madrid-Lisbon air travel market is pretty big and Lisbon is similar to Barcelona in population and distance to Madrid. The Portuguese are also doing some upgrades on their side, but have stated very clearly they won’t build a top-spec HSL. One of the reasons is that it doesn’t make much sense for domestic travel — only if and when it is connected to Madrid.
The entire corridor also faces some tough planning challenges: track capacity at the 25 de Abril bridge, the location of stations in the major intermediate cities and whether or not to tunnel under the historic core of Toledo.
Portugal and Galicia share a language. Lisbon and Madrid do not.
Yeah, it’s a pity that there are only 2 Vigo-Porto trains per day, but it’s understandable since the travel time is awful. What’s weird is that Renfe has actively tried to obstruct Arriva’s plans for running Coruña-Porto trains. With infrastructure upgrades that line could save a lot of car trips.
Still, Lisboa is the second-largest continental air destination from Madrid, only behind Barcelona.
I’d love to see a version of this thought exercise for small, dense, polycentric US states such as New Jersey, Connecticut, or Maryland.
One does not build HSR in these states for intrastate travel, but for interstate travel between New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington.
And Montreal, Toronto and Atlanta. Pittsburgh-Boston and Detroit-Philadelphia and ….
New Jersey, Connecticut and Maryland already have a lower speed network. Eastern Pennsylvania, Massachusetts. Rhode Island could add a line or two.
Hi, Israeli here.
I agree with you about the necessity for medium-speed rather than high-speed rail, and also about the incompetence of Israel Railways (i.e. building new stations that are only car-accessible on the outskirts of cities).
I disagree about timed transfers though. Nearly all rail traffic in Israel is forced by geography through a single narrow coastal corridor, with the Ayalon river in Tel Aviv at its center. On the north end of this corridor, there are branches leading to Haifa, Kfar Sava, and so on. On the south end, there are branches to Modiin, Jerusalem, Beer Sheva, Ashkelon, and so on. The Ayalon corridor itself currently has 3 tracks, with a fourth in planning. With 4 tracks and 30 tph on each track, there would be one northbound train per minute, allowing for a train every 5 minutes on each of ~5 branches. Currently several of those branches have trains every 15 minutes, so with better service and with population growth (I believe Israel has the fastest population growth of any Western country) it is easy to imagine a train every 5 minutes on these branches. With frequencies like this, no timed transfers are necessary.
In addition to this radial system, a few “circumferential” links are justified. The most important of these are from Haifa to Afula and Nazareth, and from Jerusalem to Beer Sheva and Ashkelon and Modiin. These could also maintain good frequencies.
While you include Nazareth as a fifth metropolitan area, I am not sure this is justified. Its population is split between Jewish and Arab towns which do not have full economic integration, and none of which are economically successful. The region has no universities or nationally known hospitals. It is perhaps better described as a collection of towns, which are to a significant extent commuter suburbs of Haifa, not a metropolitan area. Nevertheless, the large number of people in this collection means that a train line is justified. Like you say, it should be tunneled to a station in central Nazareth or Nazareth Ilit. It should connect to both Haifa and Tel Aviv (now I’d guess that many more people commute to Haifa, but a 45 minute connection to Tel Aviv would likely reverse that balance).
I disagree with you about the peripheral routes. Safed is basically unservable by rail due to its small population and mountaintop location. There are plans to extend the Karmiel line to Kiryat Shmonah, but this seems quite unjustified based on the small populations involved. (Many people drive to the Kiryat Shmonah area to vacation on weekends, but the area is too rural for a last-ten-miles transit solution to work.) Tiberias would seem a natural extension of the Nazareth route, but the center of Tiberias has very difficult topography issues. On the other hand, I think rail to Eilat is clearly justified. It wouldn’t have to be HSR in order achieve under-3-hour operations and attract the 1 million people who fly this route annually, plus the many others who make the 5 hour drive and often kill themselves in accidents in the process.
As for trains from Jerusalem to Amman: the gradients look pretty intimidating. Perhaps it could be made to work, but it doesn’t look cheap at all.
When I talk about timed transfers, I mean these circumferential lines, not the lines that funnel through the Ayalon Railway. So for example the Beit Shean line should have a timed connection to an express train on the Coastal Railway, and once Ashdod gets a city center station on an el, there should be a junction station at the crossing just north of the city with a timed transfer.
Eilat has enough ridership for some intercity rail, but it’s not really worth it to build several hundred km just for 1 million fliers. It’s not even like the German intercity airport pairs with 1 million fliers, since in Germany driving 350 km takes 3 hours on the Autobahn, not 4.5 hours on desert roads.
Is there any talk of 30 tph per track? Because I’ve heard, I forget if through you or other people, that Israel Railways does not understand that mainline railways can run more than 12 tph.
1. Are the city center lines supposed to be new lines terminating at the city center, in addition to a through-running line serving all destinations?
2. In any case, with the current NIMBY climate in Israel, an el within a city seems about as likely to happen as Peace. To give an example of how bad things are: Haifa is blocking electrification of the main line because of concerns about the overhead wires blocking the view of the sea.
1. Yes. The edge-of-city station locations are really bad for any traveler who intends to walk rather than drive to the station.
2. Ashdod’s roads are so wide they should be able to carry a two-track el without tooooooooo much trouble.
just for purposes of my own cockamamie crayons, what’s the minimum road width for a two track el?
The minimum is not much more than 10 meters, but the minimum at which it’s comfortable to walk next to is probably in the 30s. In the 40s the el is a net positive for the streetscape.
Isn’t the desirability of shade climate-dependent? What’s undesirable in Boston or Chicago is a godsend in Taipei, Kolkota, or Miami.
It’s less about shade and more about noise and the general feel of walking underneath an el.
Ashdod is a good example of why timed transfers are rarely necessary in Israel. Ashdod is on a north-south line, and an east-west line is unlikely to every be built (west is the sea, and east are only a couple moderate sized towns and rural areas). The circumferential routes that will exist in the south will all begin or end in Jerusalem, then follow highway 431 for a bit and then turn onto a radial line. All the radial trackage is already built, the only exception being the short circumferential bits which are currently in planning (with no provision for interchanges – typical Israel Railways planning, the line has to run in a freeway median). An interchange really should have been planned for around Ramla, but assuming it’s too late to change the plans, the marginal benefit of this interchange does not justify another big concrete pouring project to create it.
The one place I can think of that might deserve an interchange with timed transfer is the crossing of the Haifa-Beit Shean and a future Hadera-Nazareth lines. I’d need to think more about the best setup there.
If CAHSR deserved $50 billion to replace 10M flights per year, then Beer Sheva-Eilat should deserve $5 billion to replace 1M flights per year – but what is actually called for is medium-speed rail which should be significantly cheaper than $5 billion for this distance.
30tph is not being talked about, but it really should be. As they say on your continent, electronics before concrete. They are talking about raising the frequency from 12tph as part of the new electrification and resignalling projects – but only to, IIRC, 17tph. I and other activists have tried to raise awareness of this.
Lod has a junction with lines going in four directions, toward Tel Aviv, Rehovot, Ramla, and the airport.
CAHSR deserved $30-40 billion in 2008 dollars to replace an extremely thick LA-SF air and car travel market, with both modes having capacity problems, as well as connect both cities to smaller cities like Fresno and Sacramento. Tel Aviv-Eilat is a pretty strong air market, but I don’t think it has the car travel market behind it (LA-SF is 50/50 car/plane, I believe), and there are no intermediate cities to serve because Tel Aviv-Beer Sheva already exists (and should be upgraded to 200 km/h).
Lod is a junction, but not a very useful one. The Tel Aviv and airport lines into the same line 1-2 stations later. As for the southern branches, they could be useful for a few transfers like Ramla-Bat Yam or Kiryat Gat-Rehovot, but those are pretty small markets.
My impression was that most Eilat visitors drive rather than fly. Let me try to quantify that. We previously said that Eilat gets about 1 million flight trips, i.e. 0.5 million round-trips. Eilat also gets about 6.1 million hotel-nights from Israelis per year (https://motwebmediastg01.blob.core.windows.net/nop-attachment/8867_statistic_report%202017.pdf)
If the average stay is shorter than about 12 nights (which seems extremely likely – a high fraction of trips seem to be weekend trips of 2-3 days, and I’d guess that many longer trips are about a week long), then the majority of visitors come by road rather than plane. This seems even more likely as some travelers don’t stay in hotels (tourists staying in AirBnB or similar, or Eilat residents traveling the opposite direction).
Sorry, that should have been “If the average stay is shorter than about 6 nights” as both drivers and flyers need hotel rooms. But I think the conclusion is the same.
I should add: The reason HSR is not a fit for Israel is not primarily because the distances are short. Reducing the Haifa-Tel Aviv trip from say 30 to 20 minutes would in fact create a significant ridership boost. The issue, though, is that people are not traveling from the Haifa train station specifically. They have a long connecting bus trip from somewhere in Haifa, and the HSR money would be better spent improving this local trip. Also, trips of this length should have intermediate stops to attract ridership from the significant cities along the way, and it’s little use building HSR if the trains are going to be stopping frequently and so most of the trip won’t be at the HSR speed anyway.
What you’re describing is the mechanism through which HSR isn’t a great idea when trip lengths are short. Reducing Tel Aviv-Haifa from 45 minutes to 25 isn’t really a 45 to 25 reduction but a 1:30 to 1:10 reduction when connecting trips are included, so it’s not such a big deal, whereas reducing Berlin-Munich from 4 hours to 2:30 is really a 4:45 to 3:15 reduction with the same connections, which is more interesting (and 4 hours is already with half the route built to 300 km/h at great cost, previously it was 6 hours).
I understand the political difficulties of rail through Israel/Palestine but I’m not sure I understand the geographic limitations. Yes, the Galilee and West Bank have hilly mountainous terrain but they aren’t exactly the Himalayas, the Alps, or Japan. They gradients should be solvable problems with modern engineering. We put rail lines through more difficult terrain before. For high speed rail, Israel has one main thing going for it. It has a North-South orientation. HSR rail networks seem more efficient when the cities are on a vaguely north-south axis.
To reach Safed you need to climb 600 meters over a distance of 4km (15% grade), unless you also want to build massive bridges in a nature reserve, in which case it would be 500 meters over 10km (5% grade). While you could do massive engineering to overcome these obstacles, it is really not justified for a town of 35000 people with moderate tourist potential. Tiberias has similar problems though not as extreme (in engineering or ridership).
As for Jerusalem-Amman, you have to descend 1100m over 25km (4.4% grade), then some flat land, then climb 1300m over 25km (5.2%). The terrain here is not uniform, so it would need to be mostly in deep tunnels in an earthquake-prone area. In other words, a very difficult project.
The total tunnel requirement for city-center stations in Nazareth, Safed, etc. is less than the total tunnel length on the Tokaido Shinkansen. Difference is, the total population of Israel is about comparable to that of the Tokaido Shinkansen’s third largest city.
These Shinkansen ain’t going anywhere anytime soon.
No way is there English-language data on how much the repairs cost with water so high it gets into the motors, right?
Not that I know of. When that picture was taken the level doesn’t look really high but the problem with floods is the mud and debris. That picture has gone viral on tv news. It’s one third of the fleet for that line.
Main Shinkansen line is up – https://traininfo.jr-central.co.jp/shinkansen/pc/en/index.html
One thing is that the main components are underfloor.
However, the water looks relatively clean, and as it is mainly rainwater, its salt content is low. So, in some cases, rinsing and drying could do it. We’ll see how quickly the units get back to service. I think it would be quicker than many assume.
If having large cities in a straight line makes for viable HSR, California should be a HSR dream-come-true. The reality seems to be different.
A couple points:
1. California is actually decent geography for HSR, the state is just incompetent. But the big advantage is the sheer size of LA and SF.
2. Mountains. IIRC either Tejon or Tehachapi Pass would be the tallest mountain crossed by HSR in the world.
3. San Diego, Los Angeles, and the Bay Area are on a straight line, but SD-SF is charitably a 4-hour HSR trip, probably more like 5 hours with CAHSR design compromises. Sacramento is on a branch from the LA-SF mainline. Bakersfield and Fresno are between LA and SF, but aren’t huge cities. This isn’t the Northeast Corridor, where, without any branching, HSR would connect four huge cities, the farthest two in not much more than 3 hours.
About the mountains, the Gotthard base tunnel has a maximum rock coverage of 2300 m. I guess it might get into that range in California, but am not sure.
California is a weird combo of high rock overburden, if not so high as in Switzerland, and high crests. The trains would go as far up as maybe a kilometer above sea level if I remember correctly, even more via Tehachapi.
Not even close.
Tejon is the highest at 1263m. It is pretty high elevation for HSR but by no means insurmountable.
And they are going to be digging tunnels which will be somewhat lower than the summit of the pass. If its even at the pass.