Can California High Speed Rail Succeed?

By Noel T. Braymer

The answer to that question will depend on the final evolution of this project.The California High Speed Rail Project has evolved in many ways just in the last 5 years. We can expect more changes to the California High Speed Rail Project before it is running. The California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) has been around since 1996. For years it was a small organization with much of its budget going to consultants. Most of its early work centered around Promotion, Public Relations and Lobbying. The Authority before 2008 did little planning on how this project would effect local communities or how this project would fit in with existing rail passenger services in the State.

Based largely on promises of future commercial development and jobs the strategy of the CHSRA was this would create enough political support to get State and Federal Funding for construction of this project. A major factor in the approval in 2008 of the bond issues for California High Speed Rail was the past history of voters approving projects for improved transportation and alternatives to highway travel.

It didn’t take long for the opponents of Rail Passenger Service to come out with the same old arguments against High Speed Rail. “High Speed Rail is too expensive, no one will ride it and it will be a disaster.” The best lies are the ones with some truth to them. Big expensive projects often go over budget, are often late being finished and are often oversold that they fail to live up to their promises at first. Subway construction in Los Angeles in the 1980’s and 90’s was like that. There were delays, cost overruns, cave-ins and a major sink hole which damaged many buildings in Hollywood. Things were so bad that Los Angeles banned future subway constructions for a few years. But the subway is busy now as are the light rail lines and there are plans to extend the original subway soon.

What we see planned for California High Speed Rail is much more realistic than what was planned 5 years ago. Most large projects have to be built in increments not all at once. There is never enough money or support to build everything and all at once. All planners have “perfect” plans which never gets built according to plan. The original plan for the freeway system for Los Angeles called for a grid of freeways every 5 miles so that a driver was never more than 2 and a half miles from a freeway. Construction began on a freeway that was planned to go through Beverly Hills. Needless to say these plans never were realized.

What is planned now instead of being a single grand project is broken into increments. The original plan would have left construction in the San Joaquin Valley in limbo if additional funding wasn’t available to finish the entire project. The plans were changed so that by 2018 when 130 miles of new high speed railroad is finished that there will be expanded service of San Joaquin Express Trains ¬†at speeds up to 125 miles per hour

In order to get more funding to continue building High Speed Rail Service in California this first leg will have to be a success. So far little is known publicly of what is planned for the San Joaquins Express Trains which will use the new 130 miles of high speed track. These will be trains that stop only at Fresno between Bakersfield and Madera then travel on to either Oakland or Sacramento. There may be some trains to go to Richmond instead of Oakland but there is no word yet how passengers would get to their final destination from there. Union Pacific has said to run additional passenger trains on their tracks will require a third track between Oakland and Martinez and a second track between Stockton and Sacramento. General plans for service expansion by 2020 calls for between 5-9 trains from Bakersfield to Oakland on the new fast tracks and 2-5 to Sacramento and 4 additional trains to Richmond.

What will be needed to make this new San Joaquin Express service a success will be faster operating speeds, increased frequencies and improved, expanded bus connections. About half of all San Joaquin passengers now ride a bus at least once. Faster bus connections and better, shorter wait times connecting to other trains such as the Surfliners will be needed to get more people to ride trains through the San Joaquin Valley.

Caltrans has for years had plans to raise the speeds on the San Joaquins up to 90 miles per hour. This alone would cut best running times now between Bakersfield and Oakland from 6 hours 5 minutes to 4 hours 55 minutes. Between Bakersfield and Sacramento best travel times could go from 5 hours 10 minutes to 4 hours 5 minutes. This will require more double tracking of the existing BNSF route in the Valley plus signal, track and grade crossing upgrades. By 2018 Positive Train Control or PTC will be in use in the San Joaquin Valley which would allow faster trains speeds. Extra local train service is proposed for the San Joaquin Valley in the near future as feeders to High Speed Trains from Merced to Stockton, Sacramento and San Jose via the Altamont Pass. If passenger trains speeds can be raised to 90 miles per hour north of Madera by 2018 then combined with 125 miles per hour speeds between Bakersfield and Fresno even more running times can be cut from Bakersfield to Oakland and to Sacramento than was planned just for 90 miles per hour service.

What’s next? The problem will remain funding. Current estimates call for an additional 26 billion dollars to build 300 miles of electrified 220 mile per hour High Speed Rail between Merced and Burbank. This service would have connections at both terminals by rail to most of California and is planned to run by 2022. This is considered the minimum level of service that can operate at a profit by the CHSRA. After this happens High Speed Rail is expected to be able to service future debt to expand service to San Jose, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Anaheim and more.

What happens if the entire $26 billions dollars isn’t available? The answer is to build as much as you can with what money is available. How much money is available will depend on how successful the San Joaquin Express Trains are. They may not be an overnight success. They may have to be fine tuned before they take off. Even with some Federal Funding it may not be enough to build everything after 2018. The State could borrow more money at a low interest rate to be paid off over a long time with Federal Government backed loans. This might require legislation and perhaps a ballot measure both of which need broad based support.

There is the possibility of a grant or low cost loan from a foreign country. China is actively lending money to other countries to help build railroads they help to build. This is creating competition with other countries which may have to give counter offers so they can get the work instead. But before another country will want to invest in California it will want to see how much money California will be able to put up first.

What can be built for under 26 billion dollars? At a bare bone level a new rail line just between Palmdale and Bakersfield connecting with existing trackage could be built. This could be a single track line built for speeds under 200 miles per hour as a start up. Electrification would most likely have to be postponed for later. There could be shared use of this track with freight trains to increase revenue. A single track would work for one to two trains an hour. Such a service could travel from Los Angeles to the Bay Area in under 5 hours which is faster than by car and would see a major increase in rail ridership in California. This can be the spring board to raise even more money for faster, more frequent electrified State wide train service in the future.

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