USA: California High Speed Rail Authority has selected the first section of its planned high speed network to be built, although the choice immediately drew criticism as ‘a line to nowhere’. The initial section will run for approximately 105 km through a rural part of the San Joaquin Valley from near Madera south to Corcoran, with stations at Fresno and Hanford.

Construction is expected to start in 2012 at an estimated cost of $4·15bn. The line would be connected at both ends to existing tracks used by Amtrak, allowing the segment to be operated by conventional trains until further sections have been built. It had been hoped that the initial section might connect Fresno with Bakersfield, the two largest cities in the San Joaquin Valley, but the authority said it did not have sufficient funds to complete such a long stretch.

Lack of money was given as one of the reasons to start building in a rural area as opposed to the more expensive urban sections around San Francisco and Los Angeles; only half the 80 km San Francisco – San Jose section could have been completed with the $4·3bn currently available from state and federal sources. The decision was further influenced by a stipulation with the latest $715m federal grant that the first section must be in the Central Valley.

'The decision before the Authority is an important one, but we should all remember that this project is a marathon, not a single stride', said CEO Roelof van Ark. 'It’s about the finish line – building the nation’s first true high-speed rail system, connecting California’s great cities the entire distance between them. Starting here gives us flexibility to build in either direction – north and west to the Bay Area or south to Los Angeles – as more federal dollars become available.’

Van Ark suggested that if the federal funding allocated to states that are now rejecting high speed rail projects were re-directed to California, the line could immediately be extended to Bakersfield. However, building short sections instead of links between major conurbations could reduce political support for the project. The authority’s business model and ridership estimates have already been attacked by audits conducted by the state government.