Building High Speed Rail while making friends and not enemies

Opinion by Noel T. Braymer

Transportation is a very political issue since it usually depends on public monies. But rarely is it a partisan issue. This is because everyone needs  good transportation. In a disaster if transportation is cut off most stores will run out of inventory in a week or less. Most gas station have less than a 2 days supply of fuel. The growing demand for transportation is so great that there a general consensus that building more roads and airports  won’t meet our future needs. There is growing acceptance that more rail passenger service is needed. Despite this the California High Speed Rail Project has run into heavy opposition. The problem isn’t that people don’t want more, faster and better rail passenger service. It is that the planning for this project has succeeded in making enemies of land owners and local communities because of the level of land condemnation and impacts from the proposed construction for a project  many people feel they won’t use.

About 3 years ago plans for High Speed Rail in Los Angeles and Orange Counties were presented to the agencies in the region and they were not pleased. Billions of dollars of spending was being proposed for an all new railroad for High Speed Trains going no faster than 125 miles per hour between Anaheim and Sylmar. There were no plans to share any of the new construction for use by Metrolink or the Pacific Surfliner trains even when sharing the same right of ways. It was clear that these plans would have major problems both because of their high costs competing for limited funding for rail passenger service and the impacts from condemned land for parts of the project as proposed. The local Southern California agencies went to work and created their own plan that was cheaper, used little condemned land and was more likely to get built that shared the improvements with Metrolink and Pacific Surfliner Trains. The trains would stay on the existing right of way between Los Angeles and Fullerton but with 2 additional tracks for High Speed, Metrolink and Surfliner Trains.  From Fullerton to Anaheim the existing tracks with grade crossing would be used with upgrades for High Speed Rail trains. The High Speed Rail Authority didn’t like the plan of the local agencies but they didn’t have a choice. The local agencies’ plan became the accepted plan for Southern California.

Much the same thing over a longer period of time happened on the the San Francisco Bay Peninsula. Again the High Speed Rail Authority was planning to build separate tracks for high speed trains for a top speed of 125 miles per hour. This too would require condemning land to widen a right of way which generally was wide enough for a 4 track railroad. Soon there was local opposition to the impacts of the plans for High Speed Rail and very little of sharing costs for improvements for both High Speed Rail and Caltrain services. Recently there has been agreement to build a “blended system” with both services sharing tracks and electrification which would much less expensive and have fewer impacts on the local communities.

The Brown Administration soon found that when they took over the High Speed Rail Project just how troubled it was and how much opposition there was to what was being proposed. Successful politicians know that to get a bill passed or a project built you need to have more friends than enemies. Politicians usually ask what is in it for them and their constituents when asked to support anything. By embracing a blended or shared use of tracks with local services which would lead to funding to improve local as well as High Speed Rail many local leader had more reasons to support  High Speed Rail. But is this the right way to build High Speed Rail, has this been tried before? Actually this this quiet common in most places with High Speed Rail, but the best example is in France which is widely considered a leader in High Speed Rail Passenger service.

The French National Railroad, the SNCF as of 2010 ran over 800 TGV trains a day. But this should be seen in context of the 12,000 to 14,00 trains a day the SNCF also ran as commuter, regional, long distance conventional and freight trains in France over an 18,000 route mile system in a county almost the size of the State of Texas. Almost as important as the TGV trains are the LGV ‘s  which are initials in French for High Speed Line. The LGV’s are the lines where the TGV’s can run up to 200 miles per hour and by-pass populated areas. The TGV’s serve around 230 cities in Europe, most of them in France. But the LGV’s don’t go through cities. In urban areas where it would be very expensive to build new high speed lines the TGV uses existing commuter, regional and other conventional rail lines. Top speeds on commuter rail lines in France is 75 miles per hour which the TGV follows in Paris. In many places the older conventional railroad have been upgraded to allow speed up to 137 miles per hour that are also used by the TGV. The 8 LGV lines make up 1,175 miles of the total route miles for the TGV ‘s as of 2010 and another 1,250 miles are under construction.

The big difference between California and France is we still have a long way to go upgrading many of our existing rail lines to be part of a greater high speed network. Building tracks between Los Angeles and San Francisco for train travel in under 2 hours and 40 minutes seem absurd if we don’t at least reduce running times between Los Angeles and San Diego from 2 hours and 40 minutes to under 2 hours at the same time. The reason for this is as a high speed network is created it needs links to feed traffic to it. There are long range plans to build High Speed between Los Angeles and San Diego via Riverside but this will be very expensive and some time in the future. A likely first stage High Speed Rail service would run from Los Angeles to Merced. But to make this work it will need connections to San Diego, the Inland Empire, the Bay Area and Sacramento.This could be done with connections to the Surfliners, San Joaquins, Metrolink and ACE. The way the TGV would do this would be to run trains from day one from San Diego to Oakland and San Bernardino to San Jose. It wouldn’t be high speed all the way but it would be faster and more direct than what is available now. And yes the TGV uses diesel locomotives on non-electrified lines in France. But beyond this there is the need for a larger  State wide feeder system using buses to trains stations where rail service is not available for High Speed Rail. This doesn’t only increase ridership and revenues, but it increases support for High Speed Rail service and reduces the opposition to it from areas of the State that sees their tax dollars being spent for something they won’t be able to use.

The whole point of construction of rail service is to provide a good service people will want and ride, not to break speed records. The cost of gasoline and transportation are major issues that people want alternatives for. Air travel is not getting faster it is getting slower and more expensive. The fixation on building a 220 miles per hour railroad has created most of the problems for the California High Speed Rail Project and the massive opposition to it. Building a fast railroad is expensive which is why the TGV has high speed only in areas with low populations and low construction costs. The goal of 2 hour 40 minute or less service between Los Angeles and San Francisco can and should be a long term goal. Transportation planning often have goals up to 50 years in the future. These long term goals are based on priority and availability of funding. We need to build a faster State wide rail passenger network first before worrying about breaking speed records. The final service will need a LGV type bypass route that can be built with few or no stations for speeds over 150 miles per hour. The I-5 in the San Joaquin Valley would be a logical place for a LGV type of rail line. But before that that is done the railroads in the San Joaquin Valley should be greatly improved for less money that is being proposed for 220 mile operation for speeds well over 100 miles per hour to serve the most populated area of the Valley.

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