The state was warned repeatedly that its plans were too complex. SNCF, the French national railroad, was among bullet train operators from Europe and Japan that came to California in the early 2000s with hopes of getting a contract to help develop the system.
The company’s recommendations for a direct route out of Los Angeles and a focus on moving people between Los Angeles and San Francisco were cast aside, said Dan McNamara, a career project manager for SNCF.
The company pulled out in 2011.
“There were so many things that went wrong,” Mr. McNamara said. “SNCF was very angry. They told the state they were leaving for North Africa, which was less politically dysfunctional. They went to Morocco and helped them build a rail system.”
There was much titillating that supposedly-advanced California was discarded in favor of emerging market Morocco. That reputation is completely unwarranted: Morocco actually has a working high-speed rail line that connects Casablanca to Tangier and opened in 2018, the first on the African continent. With 186 kilometers of dedicated high-speed rail, Morocco actually has a longer network of bullet trains than the United States, where Amtrak
’s Acela only hits its maximum speed on about 80 kilometers of track. Morocco also plans to expand the line significantly further in the decade ahead
The wider pattern brought to light in this story though is the balance between complexity and governance that we explored back in “Marginal stupidity
[Joseph A. Tainter]’s theory is that there are declining marginal returns to investment in complexity, but he also implies that such complexity can also turn negative. There is a point at which complexity begets further complexity with no increase in productivity, essentially leveraging a collective “tax” on everyone to maintain an ever more complicated bureaucracy for no value.
Nations can clearly have too little government, with an inability to identify and track property rights, to adjudicate disputes, and to provide for general stability and well-being. On the other extreme, it’s entirely possible for governments to have so much useless complexity that they become BANANA republics (“build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything”).
California’s dysfunction is hardly a new story (unless you have decided to tune out the news!), but it’s important to remember how its dysfunction actually renders. High-speed rail isn’t a new invention, but it does require rigorous planning, optimization, and project management. It’s a skillset that’s clearly in a sorry state across the Golden State, and much of America to boot.