Why “Blending” High Speed and Conventional Rail is Important

By Noel T. Braymer

It’s expensive to build a new railroad. Even improvements to existing railroads aren’t cheap. Plus there are few places to build railroads today at any price, particularly in cities. As it is funding is always tight for any form of transportation construction. This is why is it often better to share rail rights of ways and infrastructure than trying to bulldoze your way through with all new construction.

A good example of this is between Los Angeles and Fullerton on the busy BNSF right of way. Since the 1970’s slowly but surely Caltrans has been grade-separating the road crossings on this railroad. In the next few years this segment of BNSF’s busy Transcon Mainline will be fully grade-separated. When this happens it will be fairly easy to build a 4 track railroad north of Fullerton to Los Angeles. All the grade-separations built since the1970’s were built for 4 tracks. Until this happens this line is now getting a third track where there is grade-separation to handle growing traffic on this busy freight and passenger railroad.

With 4 tracks it will be possible to run freight and passenger trains on separate tracks with 2 parallel double tracks.This will allow passenger trains to travel on this right of way at over 100 miles per hour without interfering with the slower freight trains. With future High Speed Rail service this will allow it access at least as far as Orange County. There are plans to extend High Speed Rail as far as Irvine. Speeds up to 125 miles per hour for passenger trains without full grade-separation are possible with proper crossing upgrades. Also with much less freight traffic there is less of an issue mixing passengers and freight south of Fullerton. In urban areas High Speed Trains don’t travel at top speed. The costs and impacts would be prohibitive and the distances too short for major time savings.

We will see blending or sharing of High Speed and conventional rail passenger service with freight on the same rights of way elsewhere in California. This will be true between Los Angeles to Sylmar in the San Fernando Valley, This will also be true on the San Francisco Peninsula with Caltrain and High Speed Rail from San Jose to San Francisco. Much of the right of way for High Speed Rail will be shared with the BNSF in the San Joaquin Valley. Many of the feeder services to High Speed Rail will depend on existing rights of way. These include many of the services of Metrolink, the San Joaquin Trains and ACE. ACE will need to improve service over the Altamont Pass with faster more frequent service. The San Joaquins will need to expand and improve service to Sacramento with connections to future High Speed Rail.

One proposal being considered is to fund High Speed Rail improvements with some Cap and Trade revenues. There is a great deal of competition for this money and there are many ways to reduce greenhouse emissions besides rail service which this money is required to be used for. As part of State Senate President Steinberg’s proposal for using the Cap and Trade funds, is the potential to securitize money High Speed Rail could get from Cap and Trade. Securitize means the California High Speed Rail Authority could leverage Cap and Trade money to borrow more money with bonds towards High Speed Rail construction. This will also leave more Cap and Trade money available for new housing near transit and improved transit.As High Speed Rail generates income these bonds would be serviced as they come due.

This is good news for 3 reasons for conventional rail service. First this means less competition for existing funds for conventional rail by High Speed Rail. The second reason is by sharing construction on existing rights of ways with High Speed Rail, conventional rail can share in the benefits of the improvements largely funded for High Speed Rail. Third is by leveraging funding this will greatly increase the funding for rail service improvements and go a long way to finish High Speed Rail, again without dipping into existing funding for passenger trains. On top of that there will be additional revenue with ridership from more passengers transferring between conventional passenger rail service and High Speed Rail.

There will be a significant  amount of right of way blended in California just in urban areas. There is about 60 miles to be blended between Irvine and Sylmar. This covers a major part of the busiest part of the LOSSAN Corridor used by Surf iners, Starlight and Metrolink trains.This will help to greatly grade separate and add trackage on this segment. It is over 40 miles between San Jose and San Francisco. High Speed Rail is also helping to pay for electrification as well on this segment. Future expansion of High Speed Rail would profit with blended services between Gilroy and San Jose, between Merced and Sacramento as well as on some Metrolink lines for more branches of High Speed Rail.

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