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Big Changes coming for California High Speed Rail?

Opinion by Noel T. Braymer

There are hints that the revised Business Plan now due on November 1st for the California High Speed Rail Project will reflect current economic realities. The October 16th Wall Street Journal reports the project will be built incrementally with greater use of existing track. The possibility that the new trackage could be used at first by the San Joaquin Trains is being raised. In the article California High Speed Rail Authority CEO Roelof van Ark “said private investors, including rail operators and construction companies from Europe and Asia, have voiced interest in high-speed rail. The catch: Investors want to see a link to San Francisco or Los Angeles closer to completion before they put in billions, he said. It is precisely that link for which the state needs money. Mr. van Ark said the new business plan would include scaled-back options that would link the new track to existing commuter transit lines in the two cities and, as a last resort, perhaps Amtrak lines.”

What could this look like? The new Bi-level Corridor Cars which California will be getting in a few years are rated for 125 miles per hour. New locomotives are also being built that will be geared for 125 miles per hour. Federal Railroad Administration regulations allow operation of speeds up to 125 miles per hour with grade crossings. For speeds above 79 miles per hour improved signalling such as in-cab signalling which automatically apply brakes if a red signal is passed is required. This will be available with Positive Train Control which will be available State-wide by the end of 2015. For speeds above 90 to 110 miles per hour grade crossings would have to be upgraded to “Sealed Corridor” standards. For speeds between 111 and 125 miles per hour grade crossing would have to have movable barriers capable of stopping a truck to block a grade crossing when a train passes. While these improvements will not be cheap they will cost a great deal less than full grade separation.

There is the possibility that we could see these new faster Corridor trainsets on the San Joaquins and greatly reduced running times if new HSR trackage and upgraded trackage for speeds above the current top of 79 miles per hour was available on the BNSF in the San Joaquin Valley. This brings up the question of expanded service with faster San Joaquins ?  That would require additional and possibly even faster equipment. That also brings up the UP. The Union Pacific Railroad is unlikely to allow speeds faster than 79 miles per hour on their tracks used by the San Joaquins west of Port Chicago or north of Stockton. It is also unlikely that the UP will allow many more passenger trains on their lines. Faster San Joaquins will increase demand for more and express trains bypassing some smaller towns in the Valley to allow shorter running times. The Altamont Commuter Express (ACE) hopes to buy their own right of way and tracks which would allow faster and more frequent commuter trains between Stockton and San Jose. A bit out of the way if this happens this could be an alternative route for additional San Joaquins with possible direct service to San Francisco. Another alternative is possible if an agreement was reached with the BNSF is to extend additional trains to Richmond. This would bypass Martinez and high speed ferries would be needed to get passengers to San Francisco as well as shuttle buses to the Richmond BART/Amtrak Station. But there might not be many other options short term in the Bay Area.

The big issue is creating a new rail connection south of Bakersfield to Los Angeles and Southern California. That is the market potential investors want to see before getting involved with High Speed Rail service in California. A new rail connection south of Bakersfield will be expensive, in the billions of dollars. Once connected to Metrolink tracks interim service could start serving most of Southern California until High Speed tracks could be built. Los Angeles County is now studying with Metrolink upgrading service between Los Angeles to Lancaster for speeds above 100 miles per hour. A bare bones largely single tracked line south of Bakerfield would be enough for start up service and it wouldn’t have to be built for 220 miles per hour speeds from day one. But if the State is to create a north/south rail passenger service the key for it is between Los Angeles and Bakersfield.

It would be worthwhile for the state to concentrate its limited resources towards building as much faster passenger rail service for the public to use as soon as possible instead of trying to build a dream service. That would mean finding funding to prioritize the construction of a bare-bones passenger rail link between Bakersfield and Metrolink. Much of the planning for future High Speed Rail connections outside of the core service should be put on hold. Construction in the San Joaquin Valley could be largely shifted to double and triple tracking large segments of the BNSF and upgrading or eliminating grade crossings for higher speeds. This work should be seen as stage one to using much of these improvements for the future High Speed Rail trackage much of which will share right of way with the BNSF. This will require much less environmental review and avoid fights with land owners as long as most construction stays in the BNSF right of way. Expensive and controversial segments such the Hanford and Corcoran bypasses should be delayed until there is more support for rail service which will come with improved service. A goal of Los Angeles to the Bay Area and Sacramento rail passenger service of under 5 hours in less than 10 years with hourly service to the San Joaquin Valley is possible with limited funding.This will not compete with air service in this corridor but is faster than traveling by auto legally. Today passenger rail service can take 12 hours to get from Los Angeles to the Bay Area and there is no direct rail service from Southern California to the San Joaquin Valley. A good start is better than a perfect nothing.