A weekly look at SoCal life covering news, arts and culture, and more.
Hosted by John Rabe
Arts & Entertainment

Separating California high speed rail fact and fiction True Detective's second season

A rail yard near Union Station in Episode 5 of True Detective, Season 2
A rail yard near Union Station in Episode 5 of True Detective, Season 2

Listen to story

Download this story 21MB

Off-Ramp producer Kevin Ferguson is producing a podcast about Southern California and the new season of "True Detective."  Subscribe to it on iTunes and Stitcher. We're also mapping the show's significant and lesser-known locations.

California's high-speed rail route continues to generate lots of debate this year.  But in "True Detective," it might be the MacGuffin for show's second season.

Without the train, the mayor of fictional "Vinci, California" doesn't have a reason to drive up and down the state dumping hazardous waste.  Frank Semyon, the scheming developer played by Vince Vaughn, would still be living in his pristine hilltop mansion if not for bad business dealings around the rail route.  And the detectives would never have gotten in the mess they're in now. 


The presentation given by Semyon in the first episode sets up the bullet train's role in Season 2. He's gambled his livelihood to go legitimate and buy up land near an imminent high speed rail train.

Now, Semyon's business partner is dead, his money is lost and he's struggling to regain control of his life.

The train is a real life thing. Back in 2008, California voters approved a bond (Proposition 1A, not 1) that would fund construction a high speed rail line that would link up San Francisco and Los Angeles in a matter of hours.

But can you, like Semyon said, make a fortune off of buying up land and building developments like that? Did the federal government ever really "guarantee cost overages?"

"[Semyon's] scheme appears to be: buy land near one these stations and develop it, and maybe sell the land, maybe just own it but make a lot of money," says LA Weekly's Hillel Aron, who dug into the topic.

To do that, Aron says, Semyon would need inside information about where the stations would go. Could that actually happen?

"They're figuring out the route now, in this long series of public meetings, and it's all done in the open. Everyone is angry about it," he says. "The idea that there would be inside information about the stations is questionable." 

And the guaranteed cost overruns from the Federal Government? Ridiculous, says Aron.

"The federal government is subsidizing a small part of the actual construction of the rail line. And it is conceivable that a local government would give a tax break to local development," he said.  "If the federal government guaranteed cost overages, developers would just build the most monstrous, ridiculous thing they could—knowing the federal government is going to pay for anything over what they said it was going to cost."

Beyond Los Angeles

This season of "True Detective" doesn't limit itself to Los Angeles and Vinci, of course. As the plot has unraveled, its characters have driven further and further away from the bustling hubs of commerce in the LA Metro area  into weirder, more remote corners. Land where the train goes, probably.

Semyon never says where he plans on developing all this rail adjacent land, but a good guess might be Fresno and the Central Valley, home to Valley Public Radio. Reporters Jeffrey Hess and Ezra Romero have been covering the rail project.

"By virtue of California being the size of the state that it is, this is a project that you could describe as the state dreaming big," says Hess. "Fresno and the central valley are between LA and San Francisco, which have — for the most part — built out as much as they can go. Those two big cities need a way to connect."

Romero says the project has started plenty of speculation on the part of developers in cities like Fresno. "If you ask a supporter of high speed rail in Fresno, they'd say it means a rejuvenated downtown. They're saying [Fresno] can be a regional hub. People can live in Fresno and take a forty five minute train to San Francisco, and I think that would change the lifestyle of someone in Fresno."

Opponents of the project worry about cost overruns, unrealistically optimistic travel times and environmental impact.

What's Hess' take on Semyon's get rich quick scheme?

"It's going to be years and years and years before developers of that sort end up making money," he says. "They have ten years before the first leg gets built. It's several years after  that before it connects Los Angeles and San Francisco."

Earlier this year, rail officials said they were as much as a year behind schedule in buying the land needed to start construction on the first 29-mile stretch in the Central Valley,

Still, developers are already on the move, at least in Downtown Fresno. "I talked to a guy a couple months ago who said if you haven't gotten your chips down on this, then you're too late. You've already missed the boat," Hess says.

And if a dead city manager ran off with every last penny you saved up? That boat might be up a creek.