Opinion by Noel T. Braymer
The most optimistic deadline for the start up of High Speed Rail in California is 2022 between Burbank and Merced. This includes connecting feeder trains to most of Southern California and from the San Joaquin Valley to the Bay Area and Sacramento. There are many improvements needed for conventional rail for these connections before we can successfully run High Speed Rail service. These improvements are needed even without High Speed Rail and needed before it is built.
In 2012 the Legislature approved 13 billion dollars from several sources for spending towards rail passenger service. Almost 6 billion dollars of this was for 130 miles of High Speed Rail construction in the San Joaquin Valley. The remaining 7 billion was towards improvements for rail transit, commuter rail service and State intercity rail service. This 7 billion went towards such projects as electrification of Caltrain, track extension from the Caltrain station to the new Transbay Transit Center, the regional subway connector in Los Angeles, run-through tracks at LAUS, track improvements between Palmdale and Anaheim, expansion of the San Diego Trolley and more. To partially fund most of these projects, about 1.9 billion dollars will come from the 9.95 billion in High Speed Rail Bond money.
Being paid in large part with this bond money includes track improvements between Anaheim and Palmdale. This is in part a continuation of work that began in the 1970’s to grade separate the BNSF mainline between Fullerton and Los Angeles. This will, when fully grade-separated lead to a 4 track railroad separating passenger and freight trains. This will increase capacity on this line and allow faster passengers trains for speeds up to at least 110 miles per hour. This route will be shared in the future with High Speed Trains
The run-through tracks at LAUS will increase the track capacity at Union Station. It will also reduce the running time and improve the productivity of all trains that use Union Station. Most importantly this should lead to more through service and fewer trains terminating at Union Station.The final funding for this project is in part being paid with High Speed Rail Bonds.
An example of LAUS run-through trains are future trains from Orange County to Burbank. There are plans to extend several Metrolink Trains to a future High Speed Rail Station by Bob Hope Airport. Such service will be needed to connect with High Speed Trains in the future. But it will be valuable even without the High Speed Rail connection for more local travel. There are also plans to improve and double track more of the railroad between Burbank and Palmdale. This will reduce the running times of the trains and increase capacity on this line. The improvements will be used by High Speed Rail for the start up service to Burbank. However to have a truly High Speed Rail service a new alignment is needed in the future by-passing Santa Clarita which will be expensive.
Construction of 130 miles of High Speed Tracks between Bakersfield and Madera is planned by 2018. With these new tracks and new passenger cars and locomotives express San Joaquin Trains will run at speeds up to 125 miles per hour. These new express San Joaquin’s are expected to take up to an hour off of the current running time between Bakersfield to Oakland and Sacramento. How many San Joaquin Trains will run from Bakersfield to Oakland and Sacramento or what their running times will be or when they will be running is unknown
There are many things that can be done to improve San Joaquin Train service. The Union Pacific has said that to add more trains from Port Chicago to Oakland will require construction of a 3rd track. The UP has also said that for additional trains between Stockton and Sacramento that the line will need to be double tracked. Caltrans has identified and proposed several track and signal improvements that will reduce running times and increase track capacity north of Madera to Port Chicago. Caltrans has been proposing such plans for years which could be used for faster San Joaquin service. The problem with these and many other projects is that they haven’t been funded. Without funding for such projects it is impossible to add many more trains in the San Joaquin Valley or reduce running speeds beyond those on the new High Speed Rail tracks.
ACE (Altamont Corridor Express) is the local rail passenger service between Stockton and San Jose running through the Altamont Pass. ACE has very detailed plans for the future to extend service first to Modesto and later to Merced on the UP Railroad. Also planned are track improvements on the UP to allow faster and more frequent ACE trains over the Altamont Pass. Further in the future there are plans for new equipment to be run up to 125 miles per hour and possible service from Sacramento to San Jose.
These plans include additional trains and service extended to Merced to connect with future High Speed Trains by 2022. How much all of this will get done will depend on funding.
The agency that operates ACE, the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission (SJRRC) now also manages the new San Joaquin Joint Powers Agency which is taking over administration of the San Joaquin Trains. Greater cooperation and improved connections between these 2 services in the near future is expected because of this. Better connections are hoped between ACE, the San Joaquin Trains and High Speed Rail in the future. How this will turn out will depend on future funding which has not yet been approved.
What isn’t being discussed are the improvements that will be needed to the California Bus/Rail connector program. These “Ambuses” which are administered by Caltrans by law must break even or make a profit. Without money to experiment it is difficult to enlarge or start up new bus connections to trains. With the new San Joaquin Express Trains planned by 2018, more and improved bus service will be needed to fill these new trains. Shorter running times and more direct bus service will attract more riders to these new faster trains. But there is no sign that these issues are being discussed.
There has been a great deal of media about a recent court decision which is holding up the release of voter approved bonds for High Speed Rail. The judged ruled that the California High Speed Rail Authority according to the ballot measure needs to identify the all of the funding for construction between Merced and Burbank before the judge can release the bonds. This court decision doesn’t stop the use of Federally approved funding for current construction around Fresno. This decision complicates but hasn’t stopped the California High Speed Rail project.
Funding for High Speed Rail is tied up with funding for many other rail projects in this State. If sale of the High Speed Rail bonds was permanently blocked this would also block 1.9 billion dollars in funding included with these bonds for many other rail projects high speed trains would share and or other trains would feed passengers to. If the High Speed Rail project were to end tomorrow which its opponents want, this wouldn’t result in the transfer of any money for other rail service.