Cheaper to go Over than Through the Mountains

By Noel T. Braymer

Recently I was looking at a Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) Environmental Impact Report (EIR) from 2009 for the Las Vegas to California High Speed Rail project. What struck me about it was it seemed the people planning improvements for the Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) learned a great deal from the Las Vegas High Speed Rail Project. Both ACE and XpressWest the company behind the Las Vegas High Speed Rail project plan to use multiple unit or MU trains. MU trains are usually used on transit with each car having powered trucks instead of using locomotives. Many High Speed Trains also use MU equipment. MU trains have much more traction and a higher horsepower to weight ratio than using a locomotive. This means faster acceleration and faster speeds going over grades and being able to go over higher grades. MU trains have been around since the late 19th century. Electric MU trains were very popular as Interurban trains about 100 years ago because they were cheaper to build and operate than steam railroads.

A graphic of an elevated segment from the FRA EIR for the Las Vegas High Speed Rail project from 2009.



XpressWest in 2009 looked at Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) trains with a top speed of 125 miles per hour and and Electrical Multiple unit (EMU) trains with a top speed of 150. They based their analysis on available in-production trainsets from Bombardier. Interestingly ACE is planning on using DMU trains with a top speed of 125 miles per hour. This is part of their plan to reduce running times between Stockton and San Jose from 2 hours 10 minutes to an hour. This will also include major track improvements on existing trackage and some track straightening. But this will be much more economical than building a whole new High Speed Railroad through the Altamont Pass.
A graphic from a recent report from ACE on their plans for faster service over the Altamont Pass.
What is most interesting about the XpressWest project is its comparatively low construction costs at $6.9 billion dollars for the first 185 mile segment. This is almost what is being planned ($6 billion) for the first 130 miles of construction in California which won’t include electrification or trains. The key to this plan is the use of I-15 most of the way between Las Vegas and Victorville. Using I-15 avoids the costs of buying private land and dealing with environmental impacts. I-15 is also a straighter, shorter route than using the UP railroad. The EMU trains proposed for use on the I-15 are designed for grades as high as 4.5 percent and for super elevation as much as 6 inches.
Comparisons between DMU and EMU trains from the 2009 FRA EIR for Las Vegas High Speed Rail
The big difference between highways and railroads is a combination of highways having steeper grades and tighter curves. Generally highways have a maximum grade of 5 percent compared with 2.2 percent for most freight railroads. One exception to the 5 percent standard is the 6 percent grade on I-5 between Lebec and Grapevine at the foot of the Tehachapis. Just one percent of grade can make a big difference. The equipment chosen by XpressWest was clearly meant for use on highway rights of way with the ability to take most highway grades and curves at high speeds.
Also from the FRA are the specifications of the EMU trains for use between Las Vegas and Southern California.
For the California High Speed Rail project the steepest grades planned are around 3.5 percent. This is common practice in many places with High Speed Rail like France. But California is more mountainous than most places. The result of this decision will be miles of tunneling at the Pacheco Pass and between Bakersfield and Sylmar at the north end of the San Fernando Valley. The tunneling in Los Angeles County between Sylmar and Palmdale as now planned with be extensive and expensive.
ACE’s plans for new and improved service by 2013
Ace new route
The planning for the improved ACE trains and XpressWest can have relevance for Los Angeles County. Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich has long been a supporter of extending XpressWest trains from Victorville to Palmdale and Los Angeles. He also wants faster local rail service from Lancaster and Palmdale to Los Angeles and San Diego. Something like the DMU trains planned for ACE could be used for faster service between San Diego and Palmdale as well as other areas of Southern California. Along with track improvements to existing railroads such express services could be running in a few years with major time savings.
A graphic from a few years back with the maintenance costs of raising speeds for passenger rail service.
Cost of Speed
To run faster service between Sylmar and Palmdale will need a shorter and faster route than what is possible now even with an improved right of way on the current railroad to Palmdale. The solution could be to share Highway 14. Even using only part of Highway 14 would be very useful. This would bypass the rail tunnel between Sylmar and Newhall. This single track tunnel from the 1870’s is already a bottleneck for running more trains. This new track would add greatly needed track capacity in the area for more and faster trains.
Using the 14 would bypass much of Santa Clarita which would continue to be served by local Metrolink trains. But it will also save many miles and be a faster route for express trains to Palmdale and beyond. The express trains could rejoin the existing railroad where the tracks cross the 14. This would be much less expensive than tunneling. We might see regional service on the 14 to Palmdale before the line is extended to Bakersfield. Then in the future if the time savings are worth it express trains could run all the way to Palmdale on the 14.
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