The Biggest Obstacle to High Speed Rail in California

Opinion by Noel T. Braymer

In terms of routing there is general agreement about the HSR project from Southern California as far north as Fresno. Combinations of publicly owned rail and road rights of way and cooperation with the BNSF has the route largely laid out up to Calwa Yard in Fresno. The City of Fresno wants a HSR station in the general area of the old SP Train Station in downtown Fresno. The same is true for the city of Modesto and is an option in Merced. The problem is the refusal of the Union Pacific to cooperate with any discussion of HSR service on their right of way. There is an opinion held by many that UP’s stance is just a bargaining ploy to wring out the maximum price for use of their rights of way from the CAHSRA. I think that is a gross misreading of the UP’s management thinking and shows ignorance of the history of American railroading.
For many railroad managers passenger service is simply too much trouble at any price to be bothered with if possible. For UP management in particular passenger service means government involvement which equals interference in the management of their business. UP is not against taking money from the government. After delaying for years the grade separation at Colton Crossing UP did agree to the project when it was close to being cancelled. But they didn’t agree to expanded passenger service on their railroad as part of the agreement. The ironic thing is most of the expanded passenger service on the UP was a gift as it were from the Southern Pacific. In the 1990’s when the SP was going bankrupt they sold several branch lines to local agencies for passenger service and signed agreements to allow passenger service on their railroad. The Capitol Corridor is a beneficiary of SP’s distress which is when that service was set up. The recently announced construction on the UP of Higher Speed Rail service between Chicago and St. Louis is also a product of an agreement SP made with local government when SP owned the line. The UP has been very consistent in honoring prior legal agreements it has inherited. But they are also consistent in opposing any new service beyond what they are legally obligated.
What options does California have to get north of Fresno to Sacramento and the Bay Area? The BNSF right of way is not wide enough in downtown Fresno to be used north of Calwa. In Fresno the only option may be use of public streets and or Highway 99. North of Fresno the BNSF may be an option as far as Stockton. That won’t please Modesto. Getting from Stockton to Sacramento? There is the Central California Traction Railroad or CCT which has right of way from Stockton to Sacramento. But the right of way doesn’t go into the Sacramento Station and UP is a half owner of the CCT with the BNSF. The freeway may be the only option.
The way to San Jose may be possible using the San Joaquin Valley Railroad. This short line owns the old SP “West Side Line” which runs out of Fresno on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley as far Tracy. Currently the tracks end in Oxalis which is just south of Los Banos. The line which starts just north of the old SP Fresno Station leads almost directly to the alignment proposed for crossing the Pacheco Pass to Gilroy. From there the CAHSRA was been studying using highways instead of the UP to get to San Jose. From San Jose the right of way publicly owned by Caltrain is the best route to San Francisco. Most of the issues on the Caltrain line are focused on just a few miles of the entire 47 mile route. But mitigation could prove expensive in the densely populated areas where there is opposition to the CAHSRA proposed alternatives. The use of the old SP West Side Line would make it easier to get from Fresno to Los Banos than would condemning farmland between either the BNSF or Highway 99 at Madera. But this routing may leave Merced hanging not knowing when HSR service will reach them.
Clearly there are going to be many difficult decisions to find the best available HSR route out of Fresno. Future cooperation is also assumed for the HSR route from Los Angeles to Riverside via the UP before heading down to San Diego by freeway. It will be a mistake to assume cooperation from the UP on future rail passenger service. What might UP want that could change their mind? Money is part of the answer. They want to be paid more. They are not interested in the problems the public agencies have funding their projects. They would like fewer headaches dealing with government bodies. But a major issue for railroads and all corporations is liability! The deadly crash in Chatsworth on September 12, 2008 by a Metrolink train with a UP freight train must have made a major impression on the management of UP and left them more leery of dealing with passenger trains than before. The potential for lawsuits when passengers are involved is much greater than when a container of television sets is destroyed. Any prospect in changing the minds of UP management will not happened overnight. It will start when government representatives have a clearer idea of what is behind UP’s thinking and motivations. But for now it will be a harder sell than a telemarketer interrupting your dinner to sell timeshare vacations on the Gulf of Mexico.
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