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California High Speed Rail Might Be On The Ballot This November

Editorial by Noel T. Braymer

On this year’s November ballot if the governor doesn’t postponed it again, will be a bond issue for 9.95 billion dollars from the California High Speed Rail Authority. This money will go towards building a start up High Speed Rail (HSR) service between Anaheim and San Francisco. The assumption is this money will be matched with money from Federal, local and private sources to more than double the 9.95 billion dollars being raised from this bond issue. What exactly is being proposed and what are the benefits of this project if it is built?

First let us look at the good news. Of the 9.95 billion dollars being raised from this bond issue, 950 million are for projects on existing rail services that could feed passengers to the HSR trains. The rest of the 9 billion will be for HSR. From Anaheim to Fullerton the HSR trains would run on the double track used by Metrolink and Amtrak. The tracks would be electrified, signaling upgraded for higher speeds and fully grade separated. Much the same would be done from Fullerton to just outside of downtown Los Angeles. The difference is freight traffic would be given separate double tracking and the passenger trains will have their own double tracks on the BNSF Mainline right of way. The right of way for both passenger and freight would be fully grade separated.

North and south of LAUS the HSR trains would have their own elevated run through tracks which would not be connected to the existing station platforms or throat tracks. From Los Angeles to Sylmar the HSR trains would share tracks with Metrolink with an upgraded, fully grade separated railroad. Freight trains would have their own separate tracks. At Sylmar the HSR trains would have their own new right of way roughly following Highway 14 to Palmdale. From Palmdale to Mohave HSR would share an upgraded right of way but not tracks with the UP. From Mohave through Tehachapi HSR trains would have a new right of way. South of Bakersfield HSR trains would share an upgraded fully grade separated right of way but not tracks with the BNSF and Amtrak. The HSR trains would share stations at existing sites to be able to get transfer business.

Between Fresno and Merced the HSR trains as proposed would turn west for Gilroy on an all new rights of way through the Pacheco Pass. From Gilroy to downtown San Francisco the HSR trains would share upgraded trackage with Amtrak and Caltrain. Now for some bad news; the choice of the Pacheco Pass as the route to the Bay Area has upset many people. Environmental groups lead by the Sierra Club are very upset because the Pacheco Pass route is largely undeveloped and contains a large fresh water wet-land. The environmentalists are in favor of HSR service, but want it in the Altamont Pass.  The cites in the upper  San Joaquin Valley are not happy with the choice of Pacheco Pass since this means that Merced and Modesto are by-passed while they would not be if Altamont Pass was used. Pacheco Pass is about 60 miles south of the Altamont Pass which is north of San Jose and south of San Francisco. The Pacheco Pass route may make it impossible to create HSR service between Sacramento and the northern San Joaquin Valley to San Francisco and San Jose if HSR service is extended to Sacramento.

There will be some interesting problems for HSR service to deal with. The California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) intends to use existing HSR equipment. HSR trains are very lightweight and don’t meet American impact standards. To use these trainsets in the United States will require a combination of wavers from the FRA and some modification for American use. The CHSRA also plans to use high level platforms at all station for their trains. That may mean building separate tracks and platforms at all station for California HSR trains since these will be the only trains using high level platforms.

The greatest unknown is the level of connectivity between HSR trains to other trains. The plan is to run several trains an hour with different levels of service. Running times of 2 hours and 35 minutes are planned between Los Angles and San Francisco. But this will only be possible with express trains making only one stop en route. Four different levels of services with differing numbers of stops along the way will be available. It is unlikely that a passenger making connections with a HSR trains would have to wait more than a half hour for the right connecting train. What remains to be seen is how seamless the connections will be. Will there be joint ticketing? How close and convenient will the transfers be? Will cross platform transfers be available or even possible?
Perhaps the greatest unknown is would there be additional connecting services to catch HSR trains? Metrolink can connect much of Southern California to HSR. But it would need more weekend and non-rush hour service to do that. For connections to the East Bay, Sacramento and San Joaquin Valley the Capital and San Joaquin Trains are available. But for the area around the Altamont Pass and upper San Joaquin Valley, ACE is the only option. There are plans for some expansion of ACE, but for ACE to connect with HSR trains, all day service, 7 days a week with service expanded to Sacramento and on the UP down as far as Modesto wound be needed. All this will require at least a second track through the Altamont Pass. Much of this is in the planning stage, but not yet funded. Without a decent feeder system HSR will be an airline on the ground. This means to carry significant numbers of passenger, large parking lots and fleets of rental cars at the stations will be needed.

A correction: since this was written the author was learned that the route of the High Speed Rail Project proposed by the CHSRA would largely be routed on the UP  at Fresno. The proposed Fresno Station would be on the UP line and not share the existing Amtrak Station on the BNSF. This would be true of most the the proposed stations in the San Joaquin Valley north of Fresno.