Michael Webster
Safety and financial fiasco haunts California High Speed Rail Authority (HSR)
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By Michael Webster
March 14, 2023

In addition to all the financial problems and the overwhelming cost overruns exorbitantly higher than the original estimates for the California High Speed Rail Authority, there are also major worker safety issues. There are approximately 57 job sites and more material yards all along the 171-mile alignment in the central valley rail segment. The subcontractor has only provided three qualified safety professionals to cover all the current work sites, making up many of the 10,000 employees of HSR.

Some of the subcontractors do not pay their employees on time and the employees have to front their expenses sometimes without reimbursement. At least one subcontractor has even falsified time sheets, paying for fewer hours worked by employees than the employees actually worked. The contractors seem to keep as much of the contract money for themselves as possible and pay the employees something less. Some contractors put their thumb on the scale and do not want to report violations to the official record that must be keep daily through the ISMS Management System and reported to the HSR. It's suppose to be designed to facilitate, support, and promote initiatives to reduce workplace injuries and fatalities, along with major and minor injuries, and risks in general across the project and offices through a robust set of tools related to Safety Health Environment and Quality Management (SHEQ).

In most of the alignment, the California High Speed Rail run parallel and adjacent to the railroad tracks of the California Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad Company (BNSF).

A purposed safety retention wall is to be constructed, and part has been completed. But it would not contain a train derailment of the type of the recent East Palestine, Ohio derailment.

During major train derailments, the train can come off the tracks and crush though the containment wall and even cause toxic chemical spoils, explosions, and hurt or kill many passengers and workers on site from the miscalculation of the need for massive barriers to prevent freight trains on nearby tracks from derailing and crashing into a bullet train. But even with the so-called retention wall, workers for the California high-speed rail can be cataclysmic and cause a major disaster.

Just recently, a crane fell on the tracks, and a worker was injured while driving a lift truck at night, both do to human error. HSR has no trained safety personal for when they have a second shift. There are other cases where a crane operator, with a heavy load, hosed it over the heads of workers. There has been witnessed front-end loader drivers racing each other on the job site.

Many reckless and dangerous OSHA violations are seen daily including supervisors, foremen, and workers that have no Personnel Protection Equipment (PPE) on the job site.

Reported in L.A. Times, "When Gov. Gavin Newsom four years ago unveiled his support for the California High Speed Rail, he proposed building a 171-mile segment of the overall alignment in the Central Valley that would be finished by 2022 at a cost of $22.8 billion. Now the whole project has ballooned to $130 billion from greed and corruption running rampant."

Just for the 171 miles of right away, it is now estimated to run more than $130 billion today. Many are saying that there are so many problems facing the speed rail, and now with many safety issues facing the workers, it may never be completed without help from the Feds. The Biden administration and even speaker of the house Kevin McCarthy have said, "I do not support the California bullet train. That's raising fresh concerns about the future of the nation's largest infrastructure project."

HSR, as it is called by its contractors and subcontractors, have many of the employees working for many more hours than they are getting paid for. There are several safety complaints filled with OSHA. Many workers are violating the laws by not wearing their hardhats and some on a regular bases are not wearing their Personal Protection Equipment (PPE). Supervisors and foremen set bad examples as they often are found not wearing the mandatory PPE.

Daily reports are being falsified. Many OSHA violations are not being reported. It makes safety almost impossible to cover with all the violations of compliance that exist out in the field and on the job sites. These issues must be dealt with on a daily bases. If not, somebody is going to get hurt or killed.

It has been reported to OSHA that many serious violations at the jobsites, even by foremen and supervisors, have been ignored. The subcontractors want to keep the daily reports short and no finger pointing or any use of names or any serious violations. That work culture environment leaves no alternative for workers, who are concerned with safety, to be able to report this conduct and violations to OSHA. It is believed OSHA is investigating many safety matters along the HSR alignment jobsites and all the worker locations involving many of the 10,000 employed.

According to the L.A. Times, costs now exceed future funding. An official estimate of future ridership has dropped by 25%, and the schedule to start to carry people is slipping. That's raising fresh concerns about the future of the nation's largest infrastructure project.

New cost figures issued in an update report from the California High-Speed Rail Authority show that the plan to build the 171-mile initial segment has shot up to a high of $35 billion, exceeding secured funding by $10 billion.

Retired UC Berkeley civil engineer Bill Bibs, who has consulted on many international high-speed rail projects, said he is concerned about the lack of attention to engineering risks.

"They don't directly address the hard core engineering issues," Bibs said, particularly the 38 miles of mountain tunnels that are planned for Southern California alone.

The cost of that partial system is now higher than the $33 billion estimate for the entire 500-mile Los Angeles to San Francisco system when voters approved a bond in 2008.

What's worse, that full system cost is set at up to $128 billion in the update, leaving a total funding gap of more than $100 billion for politicians to ponder.

Further, the Times reports the $128 billion price tag does not include cost updates for two separate segments between Palmdale and Anaheim, because the rail authority in the past has not updated costs until it completes environmental assessments. There could be additional jolts of sticker shock when those costs are added in the future.

Ethan Elkind, who is the director of the climate change program at UC Berkeley's law school, said, "The mounting problems cloud the project's future."

"It is in jeopardy," Elkind said. "It is dicey. There is no path forward for the full Los Angeles to San Francisco system. It is important that they get something done."

"It is clear that additional funding will be necessary to deliver the 'operational Merced to Bakersfield system for passenger service,'" the report says.

Brian Kelly, rail authority chief executive, said in an interview, "That the higher costs, which have affected projects all over the nation, represents a 'tougher challenge.' There has never been an easy time for this project," he said. "Nothing's ever been easy here. This project has never had full funding."



Kevin McCarthy House Speaker, a Bakersfield native, has long called the project (which would serve his own district) a boondoggle.

"In no way, shape, or form should the federal government allocate another dollar to California's inept high speed rail," McCarthy said in a statement to Cal Matters. "The California High Speed Rail Authority has missed countless timelines and deceived the public about costs, which are exorbitantly higher than originally estimated."



The report also indicates that the date for operating the 171-mile system could stretch out to 2033 from 2030, which would delay the public benefits and account for cost pressures.

Those factors are beyond the rail authority's ability to control, though it has struggled with construction problems of its own in the Central Valley over the last 10 years.

Construction has been held up because of problems relocating utilities, such as underground sewers, water lines, and gas pipes. Currently, about half of the 2,800 projects to relocate underground utilities have not been completed, according to a separate status report issued by the rail board's finance and audit committee. Two dozen major structures, such as viaducts and bridges, have not even started construction.

But those problems are being solved and major disputes over change orders are in the rear view mirror, the report said. Out of 2,300 parcels of land for the rail, only 92 remain to be acquired.

"It is on life support now," said Sen. Brian Jones, a San Diego County Republican and Senate minority leader. "The governor has not been able to deliver on any of his promises."



At this point, Jones says the project should be stopped and Sen. Lena Gonzalez, a Long Beach Democrat who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, issued a statement that she would hold an oversight hearing March 28 to hear from the rail authority. It is regular practice to hold a hearing after a new project update.

Kelly believes there is a reasonable path forward. The report, issued on March 1, sets a goal for the rail authority to obtain $8 billion in federal grants under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law enacted by Congress last year.

"I think it's reasonable and a prudent ask," Kelly said. The state will know by early next year whether it will get the lifeline. Without it, the funding shortfall will be breathtaking.

Sources:

HSP

Arcadis

RMN Developments

Workers

Personal observation

© Michael Webster

 

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Michael Webster

Michael Webster's Syndicated Investigative Reports are read worldwide, in 100 or more U.S. outlets and in at least 136 countries and territories. He publishes articles in association with global news agencies and media information services with more than 350 news affiliates in 136 countries... (more)

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