Commentary

What is the final word for California High Speed Rail?

By Noel T. Braymer

George Skelton of the Capital Journal from Sacramento wrote some rather discouraging things about what is being proposed for the California High Speed Rail Project. This is what he wrote as published in the December 24 issue of the Los Angeles Times.”Turns out, as a Sacramentan, I wouldn’t be allowed to use the train for a very long time. Neither would people in San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Modesto or Stockton. We’d only get to watch from a distance as the bullet became the plaything of people in San Francisco, San Jose, Fresno, Bakersfield, Palmdale, Los Angeles and Anaheim… This happened when the authority approved a Pacheco Pass route from the San Joaquin Valley to the Bay Area- a path through rural Los Banos roughly 60 miles south of an alternative Altamont Pass line near fast-growing Tracy. If the bullet line had been extended north to Tracy, it could also have served Modesto and Stockton. And then it might have been feasible to lay another 40 miles of track to the state capital. But the Pacheco Pass route was more direct to San Francisco, less expensive and a detour around enviromental slow-downs.”

What you need when getting an expensive project approved by voters is to make as many friends and as few enemies as possible. If what Mr. Skelton says is true then the California HST Authority is making enemies. The High Speed Rail Bond Issue could be going to the voters this November which could spell the start or end of High Speed Rail in California.

The TGV High Speed Rail Trains of France are a good model of how to introduce fast trains. It all started with a trunk line between the two largest cities in France: Paris and Lyon. The fast running was confined to the countryside where construction was least expensive. Existing tracks and stations were used to get into the metropolitan areas of Paris and Lyon. But the original TGV wasn’t a train only between Paris and Lyon. From the trunk line were many branch lines that also used existing trackage that spread TGV service to many areas of France. After the success of the original service more high speed trackage was built latter. To this day the TGV isn’t tied exclusively to running only on exclusive trackage. Exclusive trackage is needed for speeds over 120 miles per hour. But long segments of non stop running are needed to justify running at speeds over 120.

There is no reason that a high speed trunk line between Northern and Southern California can’t be built. There is no reason why trains using existing trackage can’t start in San Diego, Sacramento, Riverside or Oakland and use the trunk line for high speeds. This makes better economic sense and better political sense. What about electrification of the rail lines? You can build hybrid locomotives that can carry pantographs to run on electrified railroads. You can run non-electric trains as well on electrified railroads. You don’t need electrification to run trains at high speeds. Wouldn’t electrification be more enviromentally friendly? Well much of the electricity used in California comes from fossil fuels like natural gas and coal or from nuclear energy. If a bio-fuel was used not only would enviromentalists be happier, but so would farmers, if you promised to buy Californian bio-fuel.

Speaking of environmentalists, one of the reasons given for not using the Altamont Pass was that high speed rail operations would have too many problems because of enviromental issues. The fact is there are existing rail rights of way in the Altamont Pass. The Pacheco Pass has as many if not more enviromental issues and doesn’t have a rail right of way. Trying only to use the Pacheco Pass is enough to derail the whole project. It is unlikely that there will be a solution for using the Pacheco Pass any time soon. In the meantime better to fix up the Altamont Pass first for faster but not high speed operation.

All government agencies are worried about their funding. The California High Speed Rail Authority in the past had made it clear that operations in populated areas would be well under 200 miles per hour. They have said that in populated areas their trains would be able to share existing trackage that would be upgraded and benefit local commuter and Amtrak services. We need to hear more about this from the California High Speed Rail Authority. We need to see what the benefits of High Speed Rail for Caltrains, Metrolink, Capitols, Coaster, ACE, Surfliners and San Joaquins will be. If there isn’t a benefit in ridership or infrastructure, it will be very hard to get the support of any of these agencies or their riders. 

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