High Speed and Commuter Rail Electrification: Is Catenary Height an Issue?

Commentary by Paul Dyson
As we contemplate construction of High Speed Rail and electrification of existing routes we need to ask if catenary height an issue. This may seem arcane, almost academic, but it has real implications for the type of railroad network that we want to see here in California. Indeed it raises issues for the whole country.

I’ve had a vision for a long time of two electrified regional networks, northern and southern California, with a High Speed trunk route linking them with each other and with the San Joaquin Valley communities. Some routes of these regional networks will use tracks shared with freight traffic including double stack container trains and automobile carriers. Furthermore, these regional routes can also be used by High Speed Trains (“HST”) extending their routes beyond the High Speed Trunk Line (“HSTL”) to provide single seat service to more patrons. Imagine then an HST starting a trip in say Irvine on the LOSSAN corridor, via Los Angeles and the HSTL to San Jose and then on the northern network to Emeryville or even Sacramento. In my opinion this is the sort of service we need to get people out of their cars.

Unfortunately this cannot be done based on the current plans of the California High Speed Rail Authority (“CHSRA”). In the interest of being able to purchase off the shelf European or Asian High Speed and Commuter trains, the CHSRA has apparently adopted a European standard for the height of the catenary above rail level of 18 – 19 feet. This standard will not accommodate North American freight traffic, which will require a catenary height of 22 feet or more. While this may not seem to be an issue for the HSTL, it severely limits the possibilities of service expansion to other important markets which cannot justify a dedicated High Speed right of way.

There are indeed both statewide and national ramifications to the adoption of such a low catenary height, both for freight and passenger operations in the future. In California, it will be desirable to electrify both the Capitol Corridor and parts if not all of the LOSSAN Corridor and the Metrolink commuter system. LOSSAN is the second busiest passenger line in the country and the Capitol Corridor is catching up fast. These routes will soon have the traffic density and passenger numbers to justify electrification. However, both corridors are also busy freight routes whose traffic includes double stack containers and tri-level automobile carriers. What will this mean? These are the options that will be left for these corridors:

No electrification, continued use of diesel powered trains.

Elimination of efficient double stack container and high level auto carriers from these routes. In California this will put the Ports of San Francisco, Hueneme and San Diego, Benicia and others permanently out of the automobile and container business.

Introduction of a second “standard” of electrification which is compatible with full freight access, but will not allow through operation of high speed trains or standardization of passenger rail equipment.

Each of these has significant cost implications as well as limiting the types of passenger service that can be provided. In Europe it is common practice for High Speed Trains to serve major cities that do not have dedicated high speed lines. The trains reach these cities from the High Speed routes over existing lines that also carry local passenger and freight services. Passengers always prefer a through service to their destination over making a connection, even if part of the journey is relatively slow compared to HSR operation. Thus it makes commercial sense for High Speed Trains from Southern California eventually to operate over an electrified Capitol Corridor to Oakland and Richmond, even Sacramento, as well as over shared Caltrain tracks to San Francisco. In the southern part of the state HSR trains could serve southern Orange County and down the Coast route to San Diego if the catenary is compatible.

There are similar circumstances on almost all of the proposed High Speed Routes around the country and it is quite likely that the standard adopted by California will be copied by those projects. I believe it would be a serious mistake to adopt a low catenary height for California. The unique feature of North American railroads is the high clearance profile which exists on most main lines. European and Asian rail operators envy the efficiencies of double stack container shipping and the ability to move large dimensional cargoes across North American. On the passenger side the high level passenger cars such as the long distance Superliners and the bi-level cars on the California Corridor services permit a degree of passenger comfort and ability to enjoy the scenery that are unique. Why should we design down to International dimensions when we could and should be using our advantages to build a High Speed system to a better North American standard?

Given that we are some years away from ordering rolling stock, and engineering is still at a preliminary stage, it is not too late to call for a review of this policy. As I well address in a separate commentary, there are other serious flaws in the CAHSRA plans. Given that barely 10% of the needed funds will likely be available in the near future, we need to make sure that we don’t commit ourselves to a technological standard that severely limits our service options. We are after all building for the next 100 years. Let’s get it right from the outset.
Paul Dyson

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