SACRAMENTO — At a time of skyrocketing gas costs, soaring airline fares and global-warming fears, the timing would seem perfect for a statewide vote on a 200-mph bullet train.
But five months before voters decide whether to approve bonds for the high-speed rail line from Los Angeles to San Francisco, the $30-billion project has hit a new obstacle.
An old-guard railroad is declining to share its right-of-way.
Officials at Union Pacific railroad recently told the California High Speed Rail Authority that they have safety and operational concerns about running a bullet train close to lumbering freight trains.
"Just look at what happened in L.A. a few years ago," said Scott Moore, a Union Pacific vice president, citing the 2005 crash of a Metrolink passenger train that killed 11 and hampered rail operations.
"Those accidents happen."
High-speed rail promoters say the freight hauler's hard-line stand may simply be a bargaining ploy, and could be overcome in any case by buying adjacent land.
"Some are saying 'the sky is falling, the sky is falling,' but it is not," said Mehdi Morshed, executive director of the rail authority.
A prominent environmental group and several railroad advocacy organizations, however, contend that Union Pacific's refusal will prove a formidable challenge to the project at a key moment. California voters will be asked in November to approve nearly $10 billion in bonds to help finance construction.
Stuart Flashman, an attorney representing those groups, said a shift away from running the bullet train in Union Pacific's right of way would require a new environmental analysis for affected sections of the route -- a process that could add time and dollars.
"Just the fact there's a delay will shoot the prices up again," he said. "This makes infeasible major portions of the high-speed route."
The bullet train line is designed to run alongside Union Pacific tracks for many miles in Southern California, the Central Valley and the Bay Area. Flashman said the biggest problems could be on the leg from the Central Valley across the Pacheco Pass to San Jose, and on the route from Bakersfield through Palmdale into Los Angeles.
"It's hard to back up and simply say: 'You can't use that,' " said Flashman, who represents the Planning and Conservation League, the California Rail Foundation and the Transportation Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Flashman said the organizations he represents support the high-speed rail line but also want safety concerns more fully addressed. Freight-car derailments occur "fairly often," he said.
"You can imagine if you have a high-speed train zooming through there and it hits one of those freight cars. It's not a pretty picture."
Critics question why the California High Speed Rail Authority didn't negotiate a deal long ago with Union Pacific.
Until a meeting last month, high-speed rail officials had not held formal discussions with Union Pacific in "a couple of years," said Moore of Union Pacific. "There's been no circumstance where we've indicated we felt this might be workable."
Morshed of the high-speed rail authority, however, insisted the process of planning and constructing what would be among the biggest public works projects in California history -- and the first high-speed rail line in the U.S. -- could overcome the obstacles.
He said miles of the high-speed route in some urban areas have already been purchased by the state to accommodate existing commuter trains. Along swaths under Union Pacific control, adjacent land held by private property owners could be purchased for tracks, he said.
But it isn't so easy, said Dan McNamara of the California Rail Foundation. In some areas, scores of houses would have to be uprooted, and the train would zoom past existing neighborhoods, he said. "I think they're remiss to say this isn't a problem that needs to be addressed."
McNamara said he believes the bond vote, already canceled by the Legislature on two previous occasions, should be delayed once again, and the planning should be put under the aegis of the Department of Transportation, "where there's some checks and balances."
"This is not ready for prime time," he said. "It needs to be done right."
Morshed, however, said the project was ready to go. A bigger worry, he said, could be the rising cost of raw materials such as steel and concrete. Aside from miles of new steel rails, the project would feature 650 steel and concrete highway bridges, which account for up to 40% of the entire project cost, Morshed said.
If voters approve the November ballot measure, project backers hope to get another $10 billion in financing from the federal government and an equal amount from private investors. Construction then could start in two to three years, and the first high-speed trains might be rolling within a decade, Morshed said.
In areas where the bullet train would run near freight trains, a stout barrier would separate the two sets of tracks, he said, adding that during decades of high-speed rail operations in France and Japan there have been no fatalities.
"We don't want to sacrifice the safety of our passengers any more than the railroad wants to sacrifice its freight," Morshed said. "We have much more valuable cargo."