Everybody Loves Trains: Just not in Their Back Yard!

When proposing a new High Speed Rail project, everything looks so sweet and simple when talking about artist’s conceptions and lines on a map. But as soon as property owners see those lines going through their property, then things stop looking so easy for promoters of High Speed Rail. For the promoters of the Texas High Speed Rail project between Dallas and Houston, claims that they wouldn’t have the delays seen in California for High Speed Rail sound increasingly like wishful thinking. Now that property owners, particularly those in rural areas are seeing their property possibly subject to condemnation, opposition has risen against the Texas High Speed Rail project.

That is not to say that all or even a majority of people oppose High Speed Rail. But those who fear being impacted by High Speed Rail quickly become quite vocal in opposition.

So far, the only High Speed Project that has avoided such opposition is the High Speed Rail project to Las Vegas. That is because the plan for it is to use the I-15 freeway for most of its right of way between Las Vegas and Victorville. There are plans to also share a new right of way for a new highway between Victorville and Palmdale to extend Las Vegas High Speed Rail to share tracks with California High Speed Rail trains as far as the San Fernando Valley near term. What is holding up Las Vegas High Speed Rail is funding. Plans for a Federal backed loan for the project has been hung up on issues of “buy American” content for the trains the Las Vegas HSR promoters were planning to buy. The California High Speed Rail Authority is working with the Las Vegas HSR project to build it at the same time California builds the initial leg of High Speed Rail between Merced and Burbank by 2022.

The main issue of building the California High Speed Rail segment between the San Fernando Valley and Palmdale is over the route. There has been extensive planning for years for using a route which roughly follows Highway 14 between Sylmar and Palmdale in Santa Clarita and Acton. Most of this route would need to be in tunnels due to the steep grades. However local residents have been opposing anything in their neighborhood for High Speed Rail. As an alternative, a new proposal is being looked at by the California High Speed Rail Authority for a shorter, straighter and faster route in a tunnel between the San Fernando Valley and Palmdale through the San Gabriel Mountains and under the Angeles National Forest.

This new proposal has pleased the High Speed Rail opponents in Santa Clarita and Acton which would bypass these communities. But now people in the San Fernando Valley living in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains are opposing a tunnel in their neighborhood. Some of the opposition to a tunnel are to massive ventilation shafts and emergency exits being built, disturbing the Angeles National Forrest.

There is no reason to disturb the Angeles National Forest to build a tunnel under it. A good example of how this can be done is the rail tunnel under the English Channel between Britain and France called the Chunnel. The Chunnel is roughly the same length as a tunnel between the San Fernando Valley and Palmdale. It doesn’t have or need ventilation shafts running up in the English Channel, nor does it have evacuation chambers with submarines to evacuate passengers if a train is disabled.

What the Chunnel does have are ventilation pumps, bringing in fresh from both ends of the Chunnel on the British and French sides. The Chunnel is actually 3 tunnels. There are 2 single track rail tunnels and a smaller service tunnel between the 2 rail tunnels. The service tunnel helps provide additional ventilation and is a road for emergency vehicles to reach a problem in the Chunnel. It is also used to evacuate people in case of an emergency in the Chunnel such as a disabled train. Such a system makes perfect sense for a tunnel under the San Gabriel Mountains and Angeles National Forest. Nothing on the surface needs to be disturbed. Ventilation won’t be a problems using the same system as the Chunnel in California and passengers won’t end up stranded in the middle of the forest in an emergency.

One of the advantages of an electrified train is it needs less ventilation in a tunnel than would a highway tunnel. This is a major reason the Chunnel was built for electric trains. Original planning was for a highway tunnel, but ventilation problems made that impractical. There have been 3 fires in the Chunnel in 1996, 2008 and 2015. All three fires were on ferry trains carrying commercial trucks with passenger cars for the drivers . All three fires were on trucks carrying flammable material which also spread fires to the fuel on board the vehicles being carried on these trains. There are no plans to carry trucks or personal vehicles on California High Speed Rail railroads.

If the Highway 14 alignment is chosen for High Speed Rail it may be moved closer to the highway to avoid the areas opposing High Speed Rail. The better solution is the shorter, straighter and faster tunnel under the San Gabriel Mountains. It will have the fewest impacts in the long run on local communities and the environment and be the most efficient to operate. It is a good thing that High Speed Rail plans to share tracks south of Los Angeles to Anaheim and between San Jose and San Francisco with other passenger trains. This will save a great deal of money and time to be built than to try to build a new railroad in areas where speeds of up to 125 miles per hour can be operated on existing rights of way. For such short distances between stations higher speeds wouldn’t be productive for High Speed Rail.

There are still a few problem areas to be settled before we can finish High Speed Rail between Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The best bet in the future for new High Speed Rail may be a combination of additional tracks on existing railroads and use of highway rights of way, often on elevated structures. Certainly following the line of least resistance will be the fastest way to get faster train service in California and most places.

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