How to have High Speed Rail in California Sooner, Faster and Cheaper

By Noel T. Braymer

Since 1996 with the creation of the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) it has had the dream to build the most sophisticated High Speed Rail service in the World with the highest running speed in California. Such a service would serve the largest cities in the State in less time than it takes to fly. This would be quite a giant leap forward considering that Rail Passenger service in California now is no faster than it was 60 years ago. Central to this dream of the CHSRA is that this project will be profitable and much of the money to build it will come from investors and not all from taxpayers. Well like most great dreams, the plans of the CHSRA are not all going according to plan. All that is certain for now is there is 6 billion dollars in Federal and State Money to build 130 miles of new railroad between Madera and Bakersfield. This new HSR Line is expected to be finished by the end of 2017 after which it will be used by San Joaquin Trains at speeds up to 125 miles per hour. Currently there are no funds to electrify this line or buy trainsets capable of 220 miles per hour speed.

The CHSRA hopes that by 2022 an additional 26 billion dollars in funding will be found to finish 300 miles of new electrified HSR railroad between Burbank and Merced. This 300 mile segment is considered by the CHSRA as the shortest line that can be operated at a profit. Profitability is important because it will be needed to attract investors to expand HSR service to the major population centers of California. Critical to starting a viable HSR service is the connection to the largest populated area in California south of Bakersfield. So what alternatives does the CHSRA have if it can’t raise the full 26 billion dollars by 2022? The most critical segment which now has no rail passenger service is between Lancaster and Bakersfield. A new fast railroad here will bridge the largest gap in the State for rail passenger service. So what is the best way to start up a California High Speed Rail service at a profit on a budget? The answer is with Tilt Trains that can use upgraded existing tracks or right of ways. Tilt Trains are being used all over the world to provide faster rail service on existing railroads. Tilt Trains are faster because they can go through curves faster in passenger comfort than is possible with a conventional train. Tilt Trains with a top speed of 150 miles an hour are time competitive to other HSR Trains with an average speed comparable with non tilting HSR trains running at faster speeds. This is because even HSR trains have to slow down for curves particularly in urban areas. Running faster Tilt Trains needs track upgrades and additional trackage so fast trains can pass slower trains when sharing tracks. But this is still less expensive and can be done faster than an all new HSR railroad. This brings up the issue of electrification. Electric trains have many advantages. They accelerate faster which is important when a trains has many stops and on a busy rail line they are more economical to operate than diesel. The problem is electrification is expensive to build and no rail lines are electrified now in California. Even with a 300 mile HSR starter line there are hundreds of miles of routes that won’t have direct service. The current plan is to create transfer stations at Merced and Burbank to get people to most of California. Good transfers are important but ridership and revenues increases when there are fewer transfers.

Just how fast can trains go without electrification? Britain has been running since the late 1970’s and is still running fast diesel trains at 125 miles per hour. They operate these trains in service as fast as 140 miles per hour. The X-2000 train of Sweden is an electric Tilt Train with a top speed of 150 miles per that provides High Speed Rail service on upgraded tracks. As a Tilt Train the X-2000 is time competitive with running times comparable with faster non tilting trains such as the famous TGV. As part of the Acela project Bombardier built a prototype turbine Acela locomotive for Tilt Train service for speeds up to 150 miles per hour. This was done just like the X-2000 because Tilt Trains are time competitive with faster HSR Trains at that speed using existing rights of ways. The prototype French TGV was a turbine train which in the 1970s was tested at over 190 miles per hour. The issue is if the goal is to run passenger rail service at a profit then what is more important is average passenger distance traveled, number of markets offered and the costs of owning and operating a service than higher running speeds . What is most important for the passenger is the time from origin to destination not the running time from station to station. Going 220 miles per hour means nothing to a passenger if they have long waits or poor or no connections getting to where they want to go. Being able to provide faster direct passenger service by 2022 from San Diego and the Inland Empire up the San Joaquin Valley to Sacramento, San Jose, up the San Francisco Peninsula and the East Bay is a better marketing plan than Merced-Burbank with transfers. Plus using Tilt Trains on existing rights of way will be cheaper to build and operate to serve secondary markets and carry more passengers and be faster to use than having passengers transferring at Burbank and Merced.

So is this a moot point if the CHSRA get its 26 billion dollars and a 300 mile electrified High Speed Railroad by 2022? There are still markets in San Diego, the Inland Empire, Sacramento and the Bay Area which will not have direct service and may not see any for years to come. Just extending service with roughly 12 miles of additional electrification from Burbank to Los Angeles Union Station would help. But it will still be years away most likely before we can afford to electrify most passenger rail lines in the State if ever. There are several ways to handle this. With compatible signaling systems non-electric trains can run on electrified railroads. Most trains today run with electric traction. The diesel or turbine power plant for these trains is simply an electric generator for electric motors. Adding a pantograph to diesel or turbine locomotives to allow trains to run with power from overhead catenary has been done before. Another solution would be to add batteries to electric locomotives to allow operations on non-electric lines or for use in emergencies if the power is cut off. At stations and terminals there could be short stretches of catenary to allow the train’s battery to “top off” so the train would never run out of “juice” and would allow smaller and lighter battery packs to be carried on the train. This would be a way to extend electrification to secondary lines or get electrification sooner to more areas on a limited budget.

Currently we must concentrate our efforts for faster rail service where the state owns the railroad or has cooperation from railroads willing to let the State pay for its use of and to improve its rights of way. That is why most of the connecting services for High Speed Rail for now should concentrate on rights of way of rail lines owned or controlled by Metrolink, LOSSAN and ACE. In the case of ACE they are working with the CHSRA to create a new railroad from Merced to Sacramento and San Jose over the Altamont Pass. There are many limitations with the UP contract for service on ACE now between Stockton and San Jose. To really serve Northern California soon this new ACE rail line will be needed. This will likely happen before construction can start over the Pacheco Pass for direct HSR service to San Jose and San Francisco. In order to get these future improvement it is necessary that the HSR project be successful and is used by the greatest numbers of people. With success attention can be focused on other High Speed Tilt Train projects. Tilt Trains make a great deal of sense along the Coast from Los Angeles and San Francisco. Extending future service with Tilt Trains to the Palm Springs area and out to Arizona won’t be easy but is a natural market than needs to be planned for. Extending trains in the future from Sacramento at higher speed with Tilt Trains to Redding and Reno should be planned as well. Such service will be a struggle to achieve under current conditions. But a successful High Speed Tilt Train service will make it possible to extend to these other markets in the future.

First published in RailPAC’s publication Steel Wheels in September/October 2012


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