California High Speed Rail Gets Real

Editorial by Noel T. Braymer

The California High Speed Rail Authority (CAHSRA) has been often criticized over the high costs and intrusive aspects of some of the alternative routings for the HSR project. In response to problems poised by alternatives for the route between Los Angeles and Anaheim the CEO of LAMETRO Art Leahy and the CEO of the OCTA Will Kempton co-signed a letter to CAHSRA asking for a new and less intrusive alternative last March. On July 8th the CAHSRA released a new alternative following many of the suggestions of the local agencies servicing the Los Angeles to Anaheim route. The result was a much more economical and practical alternative which was much less intrusive for nearby property owners.

The other alternatives assumed the need for 3 to 4 tracks just for the needs of the BNSF on their right of way. Metrolink and Amtrak would need an additional 2 tracks. CAHSRA was planning was to build an additional two track rail line alongside the BNSF mainline. This would mean trying to squeeze up to 8 tracks on a right of way big enough for 4 tracks. This new alternative instead proposes continuing to build the 3 track mainline and build a double track fully grade separated passenger only railroad which would be shared by HSR trains with Amtrak Surfliner and Metrolink Orange County trains. An elevated structure would be used to fit 2 tracks in the space of 1 where needed. Other Amtrak and Metrolink trains would continue to share the tracks with the BNSF. Between Fullerton and Anaheim HSR, Surfliner and Metrolink trains would share the existing double track railroad. This would include 10 existing grade crossings. Freight traffic would not use the tracks between Anaheim and Fullerton when there are passenger trains running and a FRA waiver would be needed to operate HSR trains over grade crossings. The top speed between Anaheim and Los Angeles would be 90 miles per hours which is the current top speed of Surfliner and Metrolink trains.

The best solution in this new alternative report was where to put HSR at Union Station. There are proposals to build a new HSR station elevated over the tracks at LAUS, underground at LAUS and to the side of LAUS as far away as the bank of the Los Angeles River. None of these alternatives would be attractive for transferring passengers. This new alternative does the obvious: place HSR in LAUS. LAUS was built with 16 passenger tracks. Today 2 tracks are used by the Gold Line, Amtrak and Metrolink use 10 tracks and there are 4 tracks out of service which there are plans to put back in service. By building and sharing new run through tracks into LAUS there can be 6 run through tracks for HSR plus 4 run through tracks and 4 stub end tracks shared by Amtrak and Metrolink. Those 8 tracks will have greatly more capacity than the current 10 tracks used today by Amtrak and Metrolink because of the run through tracks. Not only is this alternative more convenient for passengers but also much cheaper.
In the press there have been many stories over complaints about the ridership estimates for HSR in California. The problem with forecasting ridership is it can only predict potential ridership. Actual ridership depends on the quality of service. California has great potential for ridership for a state wide rail service with a population of over 38 million. What will make or break HSR service in California will be the quality of the stations. This is more important than how fast the trains go. If the stations are not convenient to use; not near places people want to travel too, have poor travel connections or lack access to hotels, car rentals, parking and restaurants etc the service will not attract adequate ridership. Millions of dollars is being proposed to be spent to shave off seconds of running time between Los Angeles to San Francisco. But that time saving will mean nothing for a person from the west San Fernando Valley if they have to take a connecting train to Union Station to the Bay Area. Currently there are no plans for a connection in the San Fernando Valley between HSR and Santa Barbara or Ventura County. In the San Joaquin Valley so far only the Bakersfield HSR Station will even be on the same right of way with the San Joaquin trains. The HSR trains are planned for high level platform which means they can’t share platforms with other passenger trains. This will complicate station sharing.
There are critics who call for delaying the construction of HSR or even killing the entire project. The problem with that is the Federal Government has granted as an economic stimulus project 2.25 billion dollars for HSR. Construction has to begin by September of 2012 or California will lose the money. With matching Prop 1A bond money that’s up to 4.5 billion dollars for improved rail service in California. California can’t afford to throw away that kind of money. This new Los Angeles-Anaheim route alternative for HSR can be a model to resolve many of the other contested routes along the HSR system. Such a service may not be quite as fast or fancy as what is being proposed now. But it will be easier for people to use, less intrusive of property along the HSR service, cost less and be more likely to get built.
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