Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Why the initial HSR segment isn't a "Train to Nowhere"

So many opinion pages have been decrying the California High-Speed Rail Authority's choice of a stretch of the Central Valley from Borden to Corcoran (now extended to Bakersfield- thanks Ohio and Wisconsin!) as the first constructed segment. Many are calling the project a "train to nowhere" that will never attract riders.

They're wrong, and this is why.

First of all, this is the initial construction segment. Nobody anywhere actually expects to run a modern, profitable high-speed rail operation from Bakersfield to not-quite-Madera. We're going to start building the train here, and while we're building it we'll keep designing and planning the rest of the system, and then when we're done in the Central Valley we'll build the rest. The idea that we would spend several billion dollars on new track for the already-quick San Joaquins is laughable, and is plainly not going to happen. I fully expect that California will figure out the funding issues with this project and will build it, all $43bn of it.

However, I might be wrong. We might run out of money, and resistance to the rail in populated areas might never be overcome. Even if that's the case, a substantial investment in high speed tracks in the Central Valley is still more than warranted, though we will need to build something more like Palmdale-Stockton, not just Bakersfield-Madera.

Let me paint you a scenario. It's 2018, and you want to go visit your family in the Bay Area from Riverside. You grab a morning Metrolink into Union Station. Once there, you pick up your HSR ticket and walk to Platform 14. Up into the light of day you go, and there before you sits a shiny, sleek, hideously blue-and-gold high speed train. Overhead, though, you notice no electrical wires, and at the front of a train is a road-weary diesel engine. You board the train anyway, and soon you are on your way. The train follows the Metrolink Antelope Valley Line, making no stops between LA and Palmdale. You look out the window at the 5 and 14 freeways and laugh. Even though you're not riding on high speed track, you're still managing a consistent 79 M/h. 1:45 later (just 15m faster than the current 2hr Metrolink run time), you're in Palmdale, and the train is stopped at the station for quite some time. You look out the window, and you notice that electric wires have appeared overhead. The diesel locomotive has pulled away onto a siding, and as your train leaves the station it transitions to the new California High Speed Rail track.

The train smoothly accelerates up to 250M/h, and in just over two hours (that's a hair under 4 since leaving Los Angeles) you're in Modesto. You notice a rather long stop here as well. A new diesel engine has hooked up to your train, and you're being pulled back onto conventional rail. Your train still clips along at 79M/h as you cross the Altamont Pass and pull in to San Jose. 5:45 after you've left Los Angeles, you've been treated to views of the San Francisco Bay. From Diridon station, you can take a VTA light rail train all over the Santa Clara Valley, catch Caltrain to the Peninsula, or (hopefully) ride BART to anywhere in the East Bay. However, you bought a ticket to San Francisco, and that's exactly where you're going. A 45-minute ride up the existing Caltrain alignment and you're at the new Transbay Terminal in downtown San Francisco, 6 and a half hours after leaving LA.

Now, 6:30 isn't exactly record timing, and you could probably fly it faster if you get through security quickly. You could also probably drive it faster if you do the drive overnight, but you won't manage it in traffic. I believe that such a time would pull many folks from the roads and skies to the rails- not as many as the 3 hour time, of course, but enough. The point of this sort of system would be to demonstrate that Californians will, in fact, ride trains. Once you build up ridership and show the public that rail can work here, you can gain support to complete the system all the way to LA and SF. Oh, and by the way, it's not unrealistic. The times I gave are slightly shorter than the schedules for Metrolink, ACE and Caltrain on existing rail (because they make all stops, while HSR wouldn't), plus the time that CHSRA gives for travel between Palmdale and Stockton. Also, French national rail operator SNCF regularly hauls TGV trains past the reach of electric wires using diesel locomotives. TGV trains also run on conventional electrified track at conventional speeds, and such a strategy would also make this scheme possible.

The cost of high-speed track from Palmdale to Modesto will be significantly lower than the cost of track from San Francisco to LA. A lot of the cost of building this project is in right-of-way acquisition, and that is serious money in populated areas. Also, most of the resistance to the project is down here where people live. Of course, the initial segment doesn't quite go where it needs to go- yet. We need to push for the construction of rail between Bakersfield and Palmdale, the biggest present gap in our state's rail system. Currently, the only rail between the two is via winding Union Pacific trackage that includes the Tehachapi Loop. This stretch of track has never hosted passenger traffic, and UP is unlikely to be receptive to passenger trains along it- not to mention that the time to ascend and descend the mountains would be prohibitively long, and the line is presently the busiest single-track freight line in the world. While the long tunnelled stretches of HSR track from Bakersfield to Palmdale may not look to be the most cost-effective investment in the system, they connect a critical gap in our state's present rail network and will be essential for future operations.

In summary, if somebody tells you we're building a train to nowhere, they have no idea what they're talking about. If somebody tells you they need to build track anywhere else, suggest Bakersfield-Palmdale, and explain why.


  1. As you mention - the problem is funding. California is obviously in no condition to finance the remainder of the project. The funding MUST come from the Federal government. It is time for the Obama administration to put their money where their mouths are and fund high speed rail in CA. For God's sake, take away 5% of the military budget and you could fund 10 high speed rails lines nationally.

    However, if the Feds don't step up, building the initial segment in the Central Valley is a problem, if for no other reason than there is no inherent demand for travelling from Cochoran to Madera. This lack of demand equals empty trains...empty trains show the private industry that the rail line is not viability means they will not invest in the project. SO..... we are again back to waiting for a hand out from the Feds...

  2. @Anon- Absolutely we need more funding, but the present ~14bn that we have is probably enough for the starter line that I outlined in this post. The real costs of the project come from the expensive aerial and underground segments and right-of-way acquisition in urban areas. My scenario above is a way to get trains running, with a single-seat ride from LA-SF, at times that are auto-competitive and at a tiny fraction of the cost of the full system. Once the starter segment is up and running, the resulting demand (and it will be there) will allow the state to seek public-private partnerships to fund the rest of the line.

    Once again, nobody will be stupid enough to actually RUN empty trains from Corcoran to Madera. This is an initial construction segment, not an initial operating segment. My plan, however, IS a plausible initial operating segment, and a great way to generate the investment the state needs to fully build out the system.

    Also, while I'm not terribly sanguine about California's financial situation, I think I'm a bit more optimistic than you. Californians have shown throughout our history that we want high-quality public services. (Of course, we also want low taxes at the same time.) Jerry Brown has said he's going to let the people of the state choose, likely between a ridiculously austere but balanced budget and a package of revenue increases that will save our public sector. I believe that there's at least a chance that my fellow Californians will pick the right one.

  3. Yes, it does sound like you are much more optimistic about CA than I. I fear that I am correct, but hope that you are.

    And I understand that getting something on the ground is better than nothing - I am just fearful that choosing that section as the low hanging fruit was the wrong choice long term for high speed rail. Just because that section is cheap and easy, does not make it right.

    Yes, worst case scanrio there is a line from LA-SF with a small high speed section. However, if that small high speed section is never proven to be viable on its own, then the rest of the system is doomed - which would be terribly tragic.

  4. See, I think a rail line from LA-SF with a small high speed section isn't "doom"- it's a foot in the door. Californians will ride trains- the Surfliner, Cap Corridor and San Joaquins are the three most-travelled Amtrak services outside of the NEC, and Metrolink bought those new cars more for capacity than safety. If we build a one-seat ride from LA-SF that's auto-competitive, it'll be full to bursting. That should attract the investment we need to finish the job.

    We need the present segment, then Bakersfield-Palmdale. After that, start pulling trains, and you'll see something beautiful.

  5. What about the frequency? A lot of that commuter rail track is single track. 6 hours to the bay area might be OK, but trains running only every 3 or 4 hours would kill ridership.

  6. The importance of frequency diminishes with the distance traveled. People will wait 3 hours for a 400-mile train ride, just as they'll get to the airport 90 minutes early for a 70 minute flight. Also, the Caltrain corridor is almost entirely triple-tracked, with some 4-track sections. The pinch points would be at Altamont, which is lightly-traveled as is, and in the tunnels on the Metrolink Antelope Valley line.

    It's a legitimate concern, but I don't think you'd see people turning away from the trains. I think you'd see trains that are sold out- an excellent political tool to ensure the construction of the full HSR system.