A small shift in priorities could produce major benefits sooner and help build public support.
Commentary by Ralph James, RailPAC Member, Alta, Blue Canyon CA
NOTE: This article also appears in a shorter version in the March Western Rail Passenger Review.
Prioritizing the order of expenditure on public projects which may span many years can have major effects on the usefulness of incremental investments and public perception of project value.
It is important, therefore, that early HSR projects be selected that will produce tangible benefits to established conventional rail services long before the entire HSR system is completed and ready for operation.
- The initial bond funding covers only a small portion of the total HSR construction costs and remaining funding has not been identified.
- The bond measure was passed by only a small majority, meaning many citizens are not on board with the plan as presented.
- Many knowledgeable supporters of the concept of HSR opposed the plan as presented.
- The global financial situation will make it slower and harder to implement any massive investment such as HSR.
- The state of California is in bad fiscal condition, making the sale of bonds in the magnitude required for HSR more difficult, more expensive and perhaps fiscally irresponsible.
- Local opposition to local project details is surfacing where planning has proceeded.
- The project is inherently political in nature and, as such, logic cannot be counted on to prevail in all critical decisions.
- Coordination of HSR with conventional rail services for maximum service to the public, especially during extended construction periods, requires a high level of cooperation and understanding between many different public agencies, a feat often difficult to accomplish.
- No logical plan has been presented as to how each construction segment should be prioritized to best provide early return on investment and complement existing rail services. It is this last item, prioritizing investment increments to maximize early returns and provide tangible benefits to existing rail services, which this writer will explore in this commentary.
Recognizing the magnitude of the California HSR project and the significant concerns identified above, this writer believes that it would be highly imprudent for anyone to assume that the overall project will be completed within the proposed timeline or within the proposed budget. It is, in fact, a real possibility that the project could be delayed for decades or perhaps never completed at all despite billions of dollars sunk into specific sub-projects. The best outcome for supporters of integrated rail transportation in California would be to show that every incremental investment has provided tangible benefits to the traveling public in the short term, regardless of completion of the entire HSR system. The worst outcome would be to have billions of dollars sunk over many years in isolated projects unable to deliver value prior to full completion of the HSR system. Should the latter situation be allowed to develop, the naysayers would have their day and the justification for further investment in any rail projects would be seriously compromised. Therefore, this writer believes that it is imperative to establish the proper priority for each incremental investment in the HSR system.
Questions to Ask
To properly assign priority to a given proposal for early investment, certain questions must be asked:
- Will benefits accrue to existing rail services prior to full completion of the HSR system?
- Will partial segments complement or compete with existing rail services?
- Can incremental construction be structured to provide immediate benefits to conventional rail services prior to implementation of full HSR standards, i.e. without full double track, without new high speed equipment and without electrification?
Based on the answers to these questions, the relative priority of various incremental construction proposals can be more usefully evaluated.
Evaluating the Segments
Based on news reports from various sources, three HSR segments have received at least implied priority for design and construction: Los Angeles to Anaheim, San Francisco to San Jose and Merced to Bakersfield (sometimes split into two segments north and south of Fresno). Federal HSR funding grants announced in January 2010 also reference these segments for priority construction. Let us examine these segments and one other, Bakersfield to Palmdale, to see how well each one provides early benefits to existing rail services, complements rather than competes with existing rail services and is suitable for early use by expanded conventional rail service prior to full implementation of HSR.
1. Los Angeles to Anaheim PASS—HIGH PRIORITY
This segment is an existing bottleneck for Pacific Surfliner, Metrolink and Amtrak long distance services. The area is heavily developed and projects will tend to be difficult and very expensive. Any HSR-related projects that would provide grade separation for rail or road crossings, add track capacity, improve alignment for higher speeds or mitigate freight interference would certainly meet the first two requirements. Any new track constructed could be done in a manner that would allow conventional services to benefit prior to electrification and acquisition of high speed equipment, thus potentially fulfilling the third requirement. Certainly any improvements made to Los Angeles Union Station such as increased capacity or run-through capability could meet all three requirements. Thus, for selected projects, this segment appears to be properly prioritized for early design and construction.
2. San Francisco to San Jose PASS—MEDIUM PRIORITY
This segment is similar in nature to Los Angeles-Anaheim in being heavily developed and subject to high cost and difficulty for project implementation. Only a short portion of the segment near San Jose is utilized by Capitol Corridor and Amtrak long distance services. The entire segment serves CalTrain commuter service. Adding additional tracks to the narrow CalTrain right-of-way will be difficult and expensive, and initial proposals have drawn significant objections from local citizens. Any HSR-related improvements that would provide grade separation, increased track capacity or station improvements in the San Jose area could potentially meet all three requirements. HSR-related improvements beyond grade separation projects in the majority CalTrain-only territory would be marginally beneficial at best to existing services. Thus, this segment, for selected projects, could be properly prioritized for early design and construction.
3. Merced to Bakersfield FAIL—LOW PRIORITY
This segment, with limited exceptions, is rural in nature and parallels existing San Joaquin corridor services. Smaller intermediate stations at Madera, Corcoran and Wasco would not be served by HSR. Construction costs could be expected to be relatively low on this segment compared to other HSR segments. This portion of the San Joaquin route enjoys 79 mph nominal track speed with few local restrictions and could be upgraded to 90 mph upon implementation of mandated Positive Train Control well prior to any possible HSR service. This segment of the San Joaquin service provides the longest and most time-competitive route currently operating in California. There are relatively few HSR-related improvements possible that would improve travel times incrementally, although elimination of grade crossings would improve safety. Thus, HSR on this segment fails to deliver significant early benefits to existing rail service and fails requirement #1.
Should HSR be implemented on this segment prior to full system completion, it would be in direct competition with existing San Joaquin service but could not replace it due to lack of intermediate stops and lack of continuity at either end. Two competing publicly-funded rail services would then be in operation between Merced and Bakersfield with bus service required to reach the Los Angeles basin from Bakersfield and bus or conventional rail transfers required at Merced to reach Sacramento or Bay Area destinations. If this situation were allowed to develop, it would require on most trips between Sacramento and Los Angeles a bus ride and transfer to conventional rail at Stockton, a shuttle to the UPRR alignment and transfer to HSR at Merced and a transfer to bus for the trip to downtown Los Angeles, a situation that would make a mockery of the high speed rail concept. Thus, isolated HSR on this segment not only miserably fails to complement existing services per requirement #2 but is counter-productive to the goals of improved service in several respects, both physical and financial.
The final test of high priority for HSR on this segment would be the ability to utilize HSR roadbed and rail to augment existing San Joaquin services on an interim basis until the full HSR system is completed. Since Merced, Madera and Fresno HSR are planned for the UPRR alignment, no possible use could be made of the HSR infrastructure at Fresno or north. A temporary connection south of downtown Fresno could conceivably allow access to the HSR rail to Bakersfield, but only a very modest trip time reduction would be possible by pushing conventional San Joaquin equipment from 90 mph to its design limit. HSR on this segment does not offer significant incremental early benefits under requirement #3, nor does it make practical or fiscal sense to place high priority for early investment of the massive amount of money required to upgrade the fastest existing rail segment in the state to something only marginally faster. There are other locations where this investment can produce much higher and quicker returns until this segment is required for testing of high speed rolling stock and to complete the entire HSR network.
4. Bakersfield to Palmdale THIS OPTION PASSES ALL REQUIREMENTS AND RATES THE HIGHEST PRIORITY
This segment constitutes the most important missing link in the California passenger rail network. According to the CalHSR website, the proposed HSR alignment roughly parallels SR58, the UPRR freight alignment over Tehachapi Pass and SR14 between the end points. Also from the website, the proposed length of this segment is approximately 87 miles to Palmdale, but the actual rail gap to the end of Metrolink track in Lancaster is approximately 77 miles. Approximately half of this segment (Edison to Mojave) is in mountainous terrain that will involve high cost grading, tunneling and bridges. According to the website, the longest tunneling required on this alignment would be approximately 3.4 miles, a length compatible with non-electrified operation.
There is no question that closing the Bakersfield-Lancaster gap would be the single most important construction project in the state passenger rail system—no other potential construction even comes close to the magnitude of immediate benefits from an isolated project. Key to this analysis is the fact that this HSR segment is also able to stand alone from day one, independent of any other progress on the HSR network. Thus, it easily meets requirements #1 and #2 by immediately providing major benefits to existing San Joaquin rail services and providing a highly complementary addition regardless of the type of equipment used.
This segment also handily meets requirement #3 by being able to provide a means to extend conventional rail service across a critical gap. Initial costs can be trimmed to a fraction of the ultimate HSR cost by eliminating second bores on all tunnels, second track bridge structures, half or more of the general second track and all of the extremely high cost of electrification and purchase of high speed electric vehicles. Instead, a reasonable number of additional conventional passenger cars and diesel locomotives would be required to extend existing San Joaquin schedules to Los Angeles and San Diego.
Making some reasonable assumptions regarding possible elapsed time using conventional equipment on the HSR right-of-way and bettering existing Metrolink schedules between Lancaster and LAUS somewhat by requiring fewer stops, a through Bakersfield-Lancaster run could be expected in a little over an hour for the 77 miles and the run from Lancaster to LAUS could be expected in a little over an hour and a half for a total trip time of about 2 ¾ hours, slightly longer than the current 2 hour 20 minute bus schedules but with the convenience of all rail one seat travel.
- To move the Bakersfield-Lancaster construction to its proper high priority status there are some obvious hurdles to be negotiated. First and most obvious is the fact that everyone involved in California HSR and conventional rail must adapt to the mindset that certain portions of the HSR system can and should be used for conventional rail service on an interim basis while awaiting total completion of the HSR system. Although there are some technical issues that must be addressed for compatibility, this hurdle is mostly of an administrative and political nature. Amtrak, Caltrans and commuter rail agencies must cooperate seamlessly with HSR staff to bring the most beneficial result to the citizens of California. Funding arrangements must be established between agencies to cover the costs of additional conventional rolling stock required to operate over the HSR infrastructure. All services are being funded with public dollars and, as such, the citizens have every right to expect the best transportation result, regardless of turf, power or politics.
- A second hurdle that must be overcome is the tendency of those charged with implementing HSR to ignore the reality of the tremendous cost and difficulty of funding the entire system on a reliable timetable, if at all. Ignoring the possibility of a greatly extended or truncated construction schedule does not make it less of a possibility. Recognizing reality, on the other hand, makes it possible to sensibly assign priorities and early expenditure of limited dollars to those areas where relatively early functional results can be obtained while still maintaining the ultimate goal of a completed HSR system.
This writer firmly believes that closure of the Bakersfield-Lancaster gap is the single most important project that can be undertaken in California with early investment. Demonstrated results in a few years vs. billions invested in idle disconnected infrastructure can go far in building public support for the long term.