3375America’s first high-speed rail system basked in praise and attention this week when Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, visited San Francisco and echoed the enthusiasm of California’s leaders for the project.

America’s first high-speed rail system basked in praise and attention this week when Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, visited San Francisco and echoed the enthusiasm of California’s leaders for the project.

Sleek trains slicing through the landscape at 220mph. Travel between San Francisco and Los Angeles slashed to under three hours. Silicon Valley, California’s rural backbone and Hollywood, the world’s entertainment capital, truly connected.

The bonhomie between Abe, the California governor, Jerry Brown, and executives from the California High-Speed Rail Authority on Thursday masked an awkward fact and a discomfiting prospect. The $68bn system does not yet exist. And perhaps never will.

In Fresno, 200 miles south of the backslapping in San Francisco, phase one of construction was starting more than two years late on G Street. The site boasted some newly carved big holes and little else.

“We don’t have approval to demolish structures block by block so we’re focusing on areas where we can go in,” said Tyler Cannon, a field engineer, wearing a hardhat and sunglasses while surveying an abandoned brick warehouse that is earmarked for destruction.

An eclectic array of obstacles has delayed work on this first segment: farmers, business owners, Republicans, a sex shop and squirrels, which scamper in the weeds of derelict lots. Some critics call the railway a boondoggle that makes no economic sense and will run out of funding long before it nears major cities.

For railway advocates the bad news is that resistance from opponents and property owners along the proposed route may grow. The good news is that the railway is stepping up property acquisitions. And that the squirrels are toast.