Thursday, August 11, 2011

The train to where?

I have a question about the California High Speed Rail project. This post is inspired by Alon Levy's recent California high-speed rail post, but I've been wondering about it for over a year now. I've looked in the most obvious places (like the "Frequently Asked Questions" section of the California High Speed Rail Authority's website, and Wikipedia), but haven't found the answer.

So most of you have probably read the announcements that the initial segment of the high-speed rail project would be a 54-mile stretch of track between the towns of Corcoran (population 24,813) and Borden (which doesn't even have a population figure), at a cost of $4.15 billion. This was derided by the usual suspects as a "train to nowhere."

Being a big supporter of intercity rail, I was immediately ready to jump to the project's defense. No, the California High Speed Rail Authority couldn't be building a 200 mph shuttle to carry migrant strawberry pickers 65 miles. They're not even building it to go from Merced to Corcoran.

I assumed that the plan was simply to upgrade the San Joaquin route, so that these diesel passenger trains can move off the older, congested Santa Fe freight line and travel as fast as they can on a brand-new, dedicated, elevated, straight section of track. If that cuts the time from Corcoran to Madera from 1:19 to an hour, that's a nice improvement, right? It could win some hearts, and then the rest of the line can be upgraded south to Bakersfield and north to Modesto (at least), maybe shaving off another twenty minutes. Then they get some cash and electrify it from Oakland to Bakersfield, and then from Stockton to Sacramento. Then they worry about getting it to Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Several times I've been ready to make this argument in the comments to a blog post or news article, and I've stopped myself. I realized I don't know, and I don't want to speak for the California High Speed Rail Authority. I figured I'd look into it at some point.

Well, now I've looked into it, and whaaa... ? According to the Los Angeles Times, the tracks will not even run a farmworker shuttle. There will be no trains on them. At all. They will spend over four billion dollars on tracks that will just sit there.

The idea is that eventually the tracks will be extended to San Francisco and Los Angeles and electrified, and then the trains will run. Special high-speed electric trains, like they have on the TGV. But until then, nothing. No San Joaquins. No renting the tracks out as a temporary short cut for Santa Fe freight trains to raise a little cash. They will gather dust for at least two years.

Maybe the LA Times reporters were misinformed. Maybe the plan has changed since then. But I haven't seen anything to suggest that. The High Speed Rail Authority knows that there are lots of people out there who think that the plan is either an expensive farm shuttle or a set of empty tracks. If they were planning to use the tracks, I'm guessing they would put that out on their website. But they don't.

So my question to any California high speed rail followers is very simple. Is this really the plan? Are they really planning to spend four billion dollars and just let the tracks sit completely unused for years, while the parallel tracks are congested? Do you think this is okay? Thanks in advance for your answers.


JN said...


As an ardent supporter of the CA-HSR project, I will say that I don't like the idea of letting track sit idle for two years while we wait for construction end-to-end. I want to see something like Mr. Levy proposed, running full HSR lines the length of the Central Valley with connections to conventional rail where possible.

The next priority really needs to be on the Bakersfield-Palmdale segment. No passenger rail currently serves that route due to inadequate rail capacity over Tehachapi. If we built tracks Bakersfield-Palmdale, we could have one-seat ride trains from LA to the Bay Area via the Central Valley for the first time in the state's history. (Amtrak's Coast Starlight provides a single-seat ride to the Bay Area, but via UP's old and winding Coast Line, only once a day, and very slowly. Timetabled runs are 12 hours, and it's often late.) Would it be full HSR? No. But Californians would ride the trains, and it'd build political support for completing the full HSR line.

My post on the subject:

Herbie Markwort said...

Will there be an axle load limit for trains operating on the high speed tracks like in France? Perhaps CAHSRA doesn't want the typical American heavy weight train fouling the tracks?

Alon Levy said...

Cap'n: first, the segment that the HSRA is currently about to tender is much longer than Borden to Corcoran, and stretches south to Bakersfield.

There are plans to run an upgraded San Joaquins but only as Plan Z, if everything else fails. The reason is, as Herbie says, that you do not want your high-speed tracks to have to deal with very heavy FRA-compliant trains. Maximum axle load on a high-speed train is 17 metric tons, compared with more than 30 for Amtrak's diesel locomotives. Some of the viaducts would have to be beefed up for Amtrak service, raising construction costs.

Right now, the fact that there's money to go from Bakersfield to Fresno means that there's an initial operable segment that uses HSR equipment; it's unfortunately useless by itself, but the point of my post is that it's likely there will be enough money to extend it to go somewhere useful, with TGV-style legacy connections at the other end.

Joseph E said...

Alon Levy,

I believe you are wrong to say that "Some of the viaducts would have to be beefed up for Amtrak service, raising construction costs."

In fact, the current plans are to build viaducts and tracks capable of carrying heavy FRA-complaint trains, due to the legal requirement for "independent utility" of each segment.

While it's true that the HSR authority doesn't want to bother with running trains just from Bakersfield to Fresno and Merced, and plans to finish the second segment of tracks to either the Bay Area or Los Angeles before running service, it would be theoretically possible to run California Amtrak equipment on these tracks.

The problem is, the San Joaquin trains are pretty busy already on their current alignment. Switching over to the new alignment would mean skipping several small towns that have service (there are no stations on the HSR tracks at Wasco, Corcoran, or Madera). And there are not enough trains to run frequent service, currently.

If no federal money every comes available, what would happen would be that the HSR tracks would be extended to Palmdale or San Jose (or Livermore?), and new trains would be bought which could run from LA to the Bay Area (or at least from SF to the Central Valley) on legacy tracks + the new tracks. Hopefully the San Joaquin trains would continue to run from Sacramento to Bakersfield, to serve that market and the smaller towns between, at least initially.

I admit I don't have proof of these plans, but this is what others have discussed on CAHSR Blog

Joseph E said...

I should also note that Alon Levy posted this excellent analysis of the future of HSR in California, just yesterday:

He argues that California now has enough money (if $6 billion of "private" or foreign investment can be matched) to finish half of the system and start initial service with HSR trains, partially on legacy tracks, after construction.

ian said...

weighing in a little late, but as I understand
it, they need a long straight bit of track to test new trains on, especially since FRA doesn't have regulations for hsr trainsets yet. and the central valley is the cheapest place to build a long straight section of track.