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Why California needs some Publicly Owned Railroads

By Noel T. Braymer

California already owns hundreds of miles of railroad, particularly in Southern California. From Lancaster to Los Angeles down to San Diego most of the railroad is partially or wholly owned by the public. The exception is about 15 miles of railroad shared by passenger trains between Los Angeles and Fullerton on the BNSF mainline. From Ventura through Los Angeles to San Bernardino most of the railroad is also wholly or partially owned by the public. Most of the public buying of railroads happened in the 90’s when the railroads where only too happy to sell off branch lines while holding on to their mainlines. It is ironic that in the 90’s the Southern Pacific was only too happy to sell off the entire Coast Line from Los Angeles to San Jose. But the State didn’t think at the time that it could afford to buy it.

Government ownership hasn’t meant the end of freight traffic on most of these lines. Generally they are better maintained now and they carry more freight than when the railroads owned them. Still these publicly owned rail lines primarily have passenger traffic.These include Caltrain between San Jose and San Francisco as well as passenger service in Southern California on Metrolink, Coaster and Amtrak .Also many rail transit services such as the San Diego Trolley, Sprinter, LA Metro, Orange County and SMART in Northern California own rail road rights of way for current or future transit use.

The advantage of publicly owning the railroad is it makes it easier to run more passenger trains and to upgrade the tracks for higher speeds than when dealing with the freight railroads. There are issues of compatibility between passenger and freight traffic sharing tracks. In the future the plan is to share the right of way but generally separate the tracks used by passenger and freight trains on the BNSF between Fullerton and Los Angeles. This will allow more and faster passenger trains with smoother operations for the BNSF. This will be particularly important by 2029 when High Speed Trains are expected to operate between Anaheim and Los Angeles.

By 2029 it is expected that there will be 500 miles of High Speed Rail service between Anaheim and San Francisco. There will be some track sharing between Anaheim and Burbank as well from San Jose and San Francisco with Amtrak, Metrolink and Caltrain trains. But most of this will be new railroad and be publicly owned. With the increasing possibility that there will also be High Speed Rail at the same time between Southern California and Las Vegas, there could be even more publicly own railroad in California before 2029.

The Las Vegas High Speed train is planned to be on the public right of way of the I-15 freeway from Las Vegas to Victorville. Between Victorville and Palmdale the Las Vegas High Speed Rail trains will share right of way with a future highway between these two cities. From Palmdale the Las Vegas trains will share tracks and tunnels with California High Speed Trains to Burbank, and maybe later to Los Angeles and Anaheim.

If there is one lesson to be learned from the battles to build High Speed Rail in the San Joaquin Valley, it is that it is hard to buy land and build a new railroad right of way from scratch. In the future, at least in many places with open space, Interstate Highways may have to be shared for expanded passenger rail service. Just to expand High Speed Rail to San Diego via the Inland Empire, which is years yet in the future (after 2029) , freeways may be the only available right of way short of massive tunneling.

It is not too soon to start thinking about expanding High Speed Rail Service to Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona. It will likely be cheaper and faster to do this using the freeway right of way where there are no stations than to hope for cooperation from the UP. It may be possible for Arizona to buy the right of way from the UP between Phoenix and Tucson which the UP would like to abandon if it could.

Most of the roadblocks to expanding rail passenger service are on routes with UP rail lines. These include additional service on the Coast Line, from Sacramento to Reno and Dunsmuir as well as from Los Angeles to Palm Springs. Largely because of preexisting legally binding agreements signed by the SP, there is a good chance for improvements on the UP between Stockton to San Jose and to Sacramento. The Dumbarton Bridge across San Francisco Bay and the approaches to it are already publicly owned and could be used for extending passenger service.

It is hard to predict what the UP policy will be in the future for new Passenger Rail service on their right of way. It will likely be expensive if at all possible. This might require full or partial ownership (and liability) for use of some rail lines including fully separated freight and passenger tracks in many cases. The current boom in Oil train traffic is making it harder to deal with the railroads for passenger trains access. Where it is the only economic approach, such along the Coast Line, partial ownership or leasing of the railroad road may be the only way to have more public access. For other routes like regular service east of the Inland Empire, using the highways may be the only way for more rail passenger service.