We Need More Connections to California High Speed Rail

By Noel T. Braymer

It is looking more likely with secure funding from Cap and Trade money that the first 300 miles of High Speed Rail will be running between Burbank and Merced in the next 8-10 years.The High Speed Rail Authority is planning to finish 800 miles in California in about 16 years. However for this first segment to serve more of California effectively, better connections are going to be needed to fill up these future High Speed Trains. So far much of the planning for connections are at best preliminary. New, connecting services need to be up and running before High Speed Trains.

The place which will be best prepared to feed these new High Speed Trains is Southern California. The key to this is the construction of SCRIP, or the Southern California Regional Interconnector Project, which is the new run-though tracks at Los Angeles Union Station. Not only will this dramatically improve regional rail passenger service with faster and direct service to more places, but it will also allow more trains in Southern California to connect with High Speed Rail at the soon to be built High Speed Rail Station near Bob Hope Airport in Burbank. With the help of SCRIP, Metrolink and Amtrak trains that now terminate at Union Station will be able to connect with High Speed Rail at Burbank. For Bob Hope Airport there will soon be 2 train stations just over a mile apart. The new station on Metrolink’s Antelope Valley Line at the beginning will need bus shuttle service to connect with the terminals and the existing train station for the airport.

There are 2 things missing in Southern California for better connections to High Speed Rail. The first is the 2 hour and 45 minute running times for the 128 miles between Los Angeles and San Diego on the Surfliners. The running times on High Speed Rail will be less than that for the 300 miles between Burbank and Merced. There are several steps that can be made to run the trains faster and reduce the dwell times at stations on this service. But the biggest bottleneck on this line is the roughly 15 miles of single track between San Juan Capistrano and San Onofre. In and around San Clemente much of this single track bottleneck have speeds reduced to 40 miles per hour. Ultimately a double tracked tunnel for high speeds is the planned solution. If that won’t be coming soon, increased double tracking on this segment and increases in running speeds would be a big improvement.

The other issue is the need for longer distance connections. An example of this is on the I-10 corridor east of the Inland Empire to the Palm Springs area, Phoenix and Tucson. In the short term connecting bus service for the I-10 corridor would not only give connections to High Speed Rail, but also to most of Southern California through Metrolink and the Surfliners. Additional bus service should be run between Palmdale, Victorville and to Las Vegas to add more riders to rail service in California. Bus service is simple and economical to set up and with decent load factors is self supporting.

In the San Joaquin Valley the need for connections with High Speed Rail is great but the planning is still preliminary. One of the biggest problems is connections between the San Joaquins and High Speed Rail. Of the 4 High Speed Rail stations planned in the San Joaquin Valley, only one station will have connections with the San Joaquin trains at Bakersfield. At Fresno and Merced the BNSF and High Speed Rail tracks are almost a mile apart. For the first segment of High Speed Rail, Merced is the most critical station needing connecting services with the San Joaquin and ACE trains.

For the first 300 miles of High Speed Rail the plan is to run 34 round trips trains a day between Burbank and Merced. The San Joaquins are hoping to add a 7th train by 2016 and an eighth depending on funding for track work sometime later. There are only 2 round trips to Sacramento on the San Joaquins now. ACE is planning for 10 round trips between Stockton and San Jose by 2022, with 6 round trip trains from Merced to San Jose. Two of these trains would connect with High Speed Rail at Merced while the other 4 with the San Joaquins.

Clearly there is a need for more connecting service. But that will require funding for track improvements and additional equipment. Track connections would also be needed to connect San Joaquin trains to the High Speed Rail station in Merced and move all ACE trains there as well. The cheaper alternative but less desirable would be to build an additional transfer station south of Merced, most likely in Madera where High Speed Rail will run next to the San Joaquins on the BNSF.

All three services, High Speed Rail, ACE and the San Joaquins would benefit from joint connecting services in Merced. Expanding Sacramento service on the San Joaquins would be the fastest way to provide connecting service there. Even after High Speed Rail would be running to Sacramento, connections on the San Joaquins would be needed as a collector/feeder to High Speed Rail from the San Joaquin stations between Merced and Sacramento.The same is true on ACE after there is High Speed Rail to San Jose. ACE serves both parts of the northern San Joaquin Valley and the East Bay area around Fremont. Future connecting service on ACE to BART is planned and useful for High Speed Rail connections. There are going to be a lot of seats to fill on High Speed Rail. As the airlines discovered after deregulation in the 70’s, the best way to fill seats is to have as many connections to as many markets as possible.

As well as trains, bus connections in the San Joaquin Valley to High Speed Rail will provide an inexpensive connector. There are many towns in the Valley without out public service to the towns with High Speed Rail Station. Bus service could also provide connections to ACE and San Joaquin stations. The existing bus network for the State’s 3 Rail Corridor services should be expanded and adjusted as well to connect to High Speed Rail. With so many High Speed trains without connecting trains, express bus connections to major cities like San Francisco, San Jose and Sacramento will be needed until High Speed Rail service is extended to such cities.

These projects: double tracking at San Clemente, faster running times and more double tracking on the Surfliners, San Joaquins, Capitol Corridor and ACE trains to run more and faster trains as well as bus connecting services will need more money. But this will only be a fraction of what will be spent for High Speed Rail. But these investments will improve the economics for all these services, and help expand the benefits of High Speed Rail service to more of California and even out of State. These improvements will extend the State’s Rail Passenger Network to many more places and increase its utility for more Californians. This will give communities large and small more benefits and a feeling of ownership in the California Rail Passenger Network.

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