The California High Speed Rail Commission has approved a new 2012 Business Plan that sets a revised and more realistic plan for the nation’s first genuine high speed rail line.
The revised plan did little to placate the most ardent critics of the rail measure. There is a segment in American politics that holds as dogma that government can’t do anything right. For those that hold that belief, the only acceptable solution would be admitting that it was impossible all along.
The current plan does accepts some realities that earlier proponents, including the backers of the original Proposition 1A, might have ignored out of optimism. The new realities are:
- Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will High Speed Rail (“HSR”).
- Some of the most expensive parts of the plan weren’t getting the most benefit.
In reading through the revised business plan, I wished the authors had better illustrated what the system will look like at each step along the plan. It seemed more like a set of components than a structured plan. I will try to do my best to make up for that here. That requires some initial background information.
The Current State of Getting from LA to SF via ‘Rail’
Having traveled to Union Station via Metrolink, one boards a bus to travel to Bakersfield, there catching one of the ‘San Joaquin” trains through Fresno, Merced, and Stockton before arriving in Oakland from the North. This service also connects to Sacramento via the Capitol Corridor trains. In my experience, the Motor Coaches are clean and comfortable and the Diesel trains are clean and modern. But it is no competition timewise to either driving or flying.
Los Angeles has a commuter rail network called Metrolink that travels as far north as Palmdale. San Francisco has Caltrain, which travels south from the Transbay Terminal to San Jose.
The Original Vision
The plan that the HSR program had been running under prior to the revised business plan, and which was implied by Proposition 1A, was a completely new set of tracks running from Union Station in LA to the Transbay Terminal in SF. The parameters of the system were to be a non-stop trip in 2 hours and 40 minutes, which would mean a faster door-to-door time for most residents than air. Unfortunately the cost estimates of the original vision had reached the range of $100 billion.
What Makes a HSR Fast
Most people believe that what makes a HSR fast are some sort of super-engines. While a HSR line does need trains engineered to reach high speeds, the main limiting factor is that the tracks themselves must have very gentle radii, not just on the curves but also on the change in inclines. And the main limiting factor on the curves is not whether the train will derail, but the comfort and well-being of the passengers. A 220 mile per hour train on 80 mph tracks is going to travel…80 mph.
The problem is that carving such a straight shot through urban areas can be absurdly expensive. Even under the original vision it was unlikely that the urban stretches of the line were going to be reaching triple digit speeds.
Step 1: Initial Construction Segment: The ‘Train to Nowhere’ Goes Somewhere
Currently plans are being drawn up for and federal assistance is available to a segment of high speed rail line through much of the Central Valley starting just north of Bakersfield. Upon completion of this construction, the San Joaquin trains will utilize this track. Currently Amtrak California uses EMD F59 PHI engines with a maximum capability of 110 miles per hour. The new track would cut about 45 minutes off of their trip time. That Amtrak could use the line even if the rest of the system was not built was a condition that the federal government required as part of the plan for the initial construction segment.
Step 1A: Electrify and other improvements in Caltrain to San Jose
Electric trains can accelerate faster than Diesel so the switch to electric trains will reduce commute times as well as reduce noise and pollution. They are also less expensive in fuel and maintenance costs.
Step 2: Fill the gap between Lancaster and Bakersfield
This is identified in the business plan as the high priority segment. It will connect between the current Metrolink station in Lancaster through Tehachapi Pass. It will be a full high-speed segment that will require some tunneling.
Step 3: The Initial Operating Segment (“IOS”)
With the gap closed and the rails from Lancaster to the San Fernando Valley upgraded and electrified, the first genuine high speed service will begin. At first, passengers from downtown LA will take Metrolink North and then transfer to new high speed rail trains in the San Fernando Valley (possibly at the current Burbank Station) for the rest of the journey to Bakersfield, Fresno, or Merced, and then transfer to Amtrak if they want to go on to the Bay Area.
This service should be popular in the central valley cities, as they are currently poorly served by air travel and are growing rapidly. The IOS is slated for a 2022 start in the business plan.
Step 4: Bay to Basin
The next step is to connect San Jose to Merced with a new high speed rail corridor through Gilroy and Pacheco Pass. This too will require several tunnels. At this point it will be possible to get on a train in downtown San Francisco, travel along the shared Caltrain tracks to San Jose, continue south on the dedicated tracks, and reach the San Fernando Valley, without having to change trains. According to the business plan this can happen in 2026.
Step 5: Phase 1 Blended
The final step in the plan is to deliver high speed service to LA’s Union Station. The business plan describes this as dedicated HSR infrastructure. This would seem to mean that although there are tracks that could be used for a blended approach, they are already too busy to take the extra capacity as they are already used for the Metrolink Ventura County service, Metrolink Antelope Valley service, Amtrak Surfliner service, and local freight service.
At this point it will be possible to take a single train from Union Station in LA to the Transbay Terminal in SF. The tracks will be a combination of HSR-Only, HSR/Metrolink, and HSR/Caltrain, but that will hardly be of concern to the passenger. It may seem odd that this step, described as occurring in 2029, would be ‘Phase 1’, but that is what Proposition 1A said had to be contained in the Phase 1 system.