How About a High Speed San Joaquin?

Editorial by Noel T. Braymer

No doubt the call by RailPAC to build HSR between Bakersfield and Los Angeles first at the San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee meeting on July 29, 2010 and extend the San Joaquin trains on it to Southern California didn’t go over well with the California High Speed Rail Authority. No doubt the first thing they said was “you can’t mix slow passenger trains with fast trains on a high speed corridor!”
What you can do, and is done all the time in Europe is run HSR trains on the old conventional tracks where it isn’t economical to upgrade to high speed. Most of the high speed trackage in Europe is out in the open country where construction costs are lower and where long stretches of non-stop running will get the maximum time savings at high speed. When you go from 60 to 120 miles per hour you save 30 seconds on average every mile you go. If you double that to 240 miles per hour your savings are only 15 seconds per mile on average. In most urban areas the time saved going over 110 miles per hour is only a few minutes because the distances are fairly short.

When we extend the San Joaquins to Southern California we are going to need new equipment. There is not enough now to meet current growth and extending the San Joaquins will see an explosion of ridership. You might as well get equipment that will feel right at home on a fast railroad. What about FRA regulations? Well Talgo already has a High Speed Trainset that meets FRA strength requirements, though this may not be a major issue. The FRA waiver on those requirements on Caltrain for new lightweight electrified commuter trains was based on the adoption of Positive Train Control (PTC). Prevention of train to train collisions with better signaling is a more rational approach to safety than building trains like tanks. By 2015 all passenger rail lines should have PTC. As for low platform loading this is possible with most HSR equipment. In France the busiest TGV rail lines use bilevel trains with low platforms. As for electrification, you could put pantographs on diesel-electric locomotives or you can tow electric trains with a diesel locomotive in non-electrified territory or you can run diesel locomotives on electrified railroads.

Why run the San Joaquins extended to Los Angeles and even San Diego first? This would serve the largest area of California over the longest distance in the shortest time. From day one San Diego, southern Orange County, the entire San Joaquin Valley, the East Bay and Sacramento would have faster service. Also longer average trips mean better economic performance for a service. In order to have access to Oakland and Sacramento it will be necessary to keep Amtrak as operator of the San Joaquins since Amtrak has operating rights over the UP. That shouldn’t mean Amtrak would have to be responsible for equipment maintenance or that they would be the operator of HSR service to San Jose and San Francisco. For San Diego service a maintenance base would be needed in San Diego. Long overdue track improvements should also be done to reduce the running time between San Diego and Los Angeles. If we build the HSR segment between Sylmar and Bakersfield first we could see state wide service by 2016 or so, not 2030 if ever. There are many obstacles to building the HSR service as planned. It mostly will require many more changes before it can be built and there is no telling how long it will take to be fully built.

The HSR station in Fresno will be about a mile from the Amtrak station. The easiest route for this would be the UP ROW but this isn’t an option. North of Fresno the only alternatives other than the UP would be Highway 99 or the BNSF as far as Stockton. For the San Joaquins to connect with future HSR service in Fresno will require track connections to the HSR Fresno station and connections back to the BNSF. Extending the San Joaquins and running them faster would reduce the need to move it from the Amtrak Station in Fresno or build connecting tracks for Amtrak service back to the BNSF. With the CAHSRA concentrating on building the core HSR service between Sylmar to San Jose while controlling costs is the surest way to success. In urban areas the CAHSRA trains can share tracks with Caltrain and Metrolink such as its cousins in Europe do with local commuter trains.

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