Editorials, Issues

Why RailPAC supports High Speed Rail; Why RailPAC is not a cheerleader for the CHSRA

Why RailPAC supports High Speed Rail
Why RailPAC is not a cheerleader for the CHSRA

We have been asked many times about our support for the California High Speed Rail program, particularly as we have always supported an incremental approach to intercity passenger train development. It’s a fair question and one that will receive a qualified answer. While we continue to support progressive improvements to the existing system, there are gaps in the state network, notably between Bakersfield and Los Angeles, which will never be effectively bridged using the “historical” routes. With the possible exception of an overnight service, the existing route via Tehachapi and the Soledad Canyon is simply not designed to provide a competitive journey time. Even without the presence of large numbers of slow moving freight trains, and even with modern high powered tilting trains, it is unlikely that a time of 3.5 hours between these cities can be improved upon. Add in the constraints of the freight operations and the likelihood of providing a reliable, competitive passenger service is too low to be a worthwhile objective.

There is a similar gap or gaps between the north end of the San Joaquin Valley and the San Francisco bay area. Again existing infrastructure is freight constrained and built on alignments that might have been acceptable 100 years ago but cannot provide competitive service now. Finally, the Los Angeles Union Station run-through tracks need the impetus of a major project such as HSR to convince the local agencies of the benefits and a mechanism to provide the money. So we support High Speed Rail and the construction of new route segments as the only alternative that will give us a modern, competitive, passenger railroad.

Had RailPAC been put in charge of establishing the priorities and the sequence of construction there is no doubt that the current business plan would look very different. Our first priority would be to bridge the southern gap and establish an interim service possibly using Talgo or similar rolling stock. (See Noel Braymer’s commentary in the current issue of the RailPAC printed newsletter, Steel Wheels). These train sets would be bought to be used while HSR is under construction with the idea that they would be redeployed onto the Coast route when sufficient High Speed track is available to use High Speed trains. The CHSRA business plan calls for replacing a section of the San Joaquin route with HS track and save some minutes on the journey time, but this in itself will generate little new revenue.

So RailPAC has considerable reservations about the philosophy, priorities, and capabilities of the CHSRA and the other agencies tasked with delivering the “blended” system. In the next issue of Steel Wheels we will be questioning the cost of Caltrain electrification and the compatibility or otherwise of their Positive Train Control system, and we’ll also be questioning the proposed location of HSR platforms at Sacramento. Until construction begins, and even after that, we shall continue to press for our priorities, and, as always, Value for Money for passenger and taxpayer alike. Remember that the initial business plan conceived exclusively of building in the San Joaquin Valley and it is only after the efforts of some leading public transportation officials and of this organization that part of the initial investment was redirected to the so-called bookends.

There is hope then that a better plan and execution will emerge in the coming months and years. Yes, it will cost billions. We cannot accomplish a modern passenger rail network without spending billions, especially in bridging the gaps. Yes, there is likelihood of cost overruns and waste. RailPAC exists to attempt to educate and promote a better way of delivering mobility and we shall continue to be constructive critics of CHSRA, and supporters of High Speed Rail.

— Paul Dyson, RailPAC President
NOTE: This editorial was approved by the RailPAC Board of Directors

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