The States of Ohio and Wisconsin bail out the California High Speed Rail Authority

Editorial by Noel T. Braymer

The decisions by the newly elected Governors of Ohio and Wisconsin to pull their states out of the High Speed Rail Stimulus funding program have led to the recent announcement of 624 million dollars of that money will be redirected to California. This was on top of 715 million the state was recently awarded for HSR construction in the San Joaquin Valley which brought to 3 billion dollars the state had received from the Federal Government. The CAHSRA had seemingly out of the blue announced plans just after Thanksgivings to spend 4.3 billion dollars for 65 miles of the first leg of HSR construction between Corcoran and Borden with Fresno in the middle. Eleven out of the 65 miles will be needed to connect this new trackage to the BNSF north of Fresno allowing the trackage to be usable by other trains. Called by many the train to nowhere this segment had limited utility and the fact it was only in one congressional district didn’t go over well with other elected officials. This additional 624 million which will be matched with Prop 1A bond money will now bring the total available for construction to $5.5 billion. This should be enough to extend the new tracks almost 55 miles from Corcoran to near Bakersfield for a total of 120 miles making this a more viable project.

This new construction will be for new track work only. There is no money for electrification, HSR trainsets or car maintenance yards. The only train service that will be able to use it will be rerouted San Joaquin Trains in the immediate future.  The plan is to build a new alignment in Fresno near the UP tracks on the west side of Fresno for the construction of 12 miles of elevated viaduct over city streets of Fresno. This will also include a new downtown station in Fresno. If the San Joaquin trains are rerouted on this new trackage, then new stations will also be needed to replace the stations at Wasco, Hanford and Madera. This plan requires that a connection be built at Borden to the BNSF mainline so the San Joaquin trains can continue to Merced and beyond. The current top possible speed for the San Joaquins is around 105 miles per hour. The times saving between 65 miles of HSR track versus 120 miles will be noticeable.
About the time the CAHSRA was granted more money the report of the California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group was released. This group of transportation experts led by former Caltrans chef and current CEO of the Orange County Transportation Authority Will Kempton is part of the Prop 1A measure to insure oversight of this very expensive project. This report found several weaknesses with the current management of the HSR project. These included inadequate staffing for such a large project, lack of a clear business model, questions about ridership and revenue projections, lack of a clear financial plan and a 30 billion dollar gap between available funding and projected costs for this project. From the report “There is an air of unreality about a plan that includes $17 to $19 billion in ‘free’ federal funding from programs that do not yet exist.” {Emphasis added}

What could be done to best use these 120 miles of new high speed railroad? The best near term option will be to upgrade the San Joaquin Train for faster service and extending it to Southern California. Talgo for example has a tilt train that is faster around curves, can go faster than 110 and meets FRA specifications allowing them to also run on mainline railroads. If the state and Amtrak were able to get some of these  or similar equipment then running times could be decreased even more. With Positive Train Control it will be possible to raise the top speed on much of the San Joaquin route to 90 miles per hour. We could do more to speed up the San Joaquin route by concentrating our efforts where we get the most times savings at the lowest cost rather than building an entire segment to HSR standards. An example of this is delaying some of the more expensive reroutes and building more, fast trackage. Plans to build a bypass around Hanford and building a replacement station could be put off and the money used instead to double track all the way into Bakersfield. High speed double tracking into Bakersfield will be more useful in the short term than bypassing Hanford.
To make the faster San Joaquin function better will require extending the trains south of Bakersfield to Palmdale. At Palmdale some San Joaquin trains could be extended to at least Los Angeles and other could connect with Metrolink. Some direct service between Los Angeles, Oakland and Sacramento would be possible. Additional Fresno to Palmdale service could be run with connections to Metrolink trains that could serve most of Southern California. If we concentrate our efforts to getting the construction between of HSR trackage between Bakersfield and Palmdale, we could have fast rail service between Southern and Northern California in 10 years or less even in the current political and economic conditions.
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