HSR: Fantasy versus Reality

Editorial by Noel T. Braymer

The main obstacle to High Speed Rail service in California is not rich NIMBY homeowners or the Union Pacific Railroad. The main obstacle is the consultants being paid by the California High Speed Rail Authority to plan and design the service.

There is broad popular support for better passenger rail service in California. But in too many cases the proposals coming from the consultants for the CAHSRA are reckless in terms of economic reality and the needs of local communities. A key advantage of improved rail service is it can use existing rights of way and carry large numbers of people using very little space. The construction of high speed rail only trackage has the added advantage that it can be built at lower costs than conventional rail. This is because high speed passenger only trackage can be built with higher grades and  more super elevation to allow higher speeds around curves than is practical for freight trains. Yet the planning for HSR shows little of these advantages and seems to be going out of its way to build the most expensive project possible where they could be saving the most.
In the San Francisco Bay Area proposals called for expansion of the existing Caltrain right of way for wider ROW around the HSR tracks. This despite speeds expected at no more than 120 miles per hour not the 220 mph planned in open country. With 88% of the Caltrain right of way at least 80 feet wide this is more than enough for a 4 track railroad. It gets weirder when the plan for HSR in Santa Clara calls for the construction of 5 miles of 60 foot high viaduct over an existing 4 track segment of Caltrain ROW which is 100 feet wide and already grade separated. In Fresno there are plans again for a 60 foot high viaduct 12 miles long through most of Fresno and elevated over city streets. This viaduct is proposed to be 60 feet wide to allow non-stop trains to run past Fresno at 220 mph. The planners want the trackage to be as straight as possible in the middle of town to allow fast trains to bypass downtown. In Bakersfield the citizens of that city are given the choice of a HSR station 500 feet away from the existing Amtrak station or HSR platforms near the existing station but with a 60 foot elevated viaduct built right next to the downtown high school, which will tear out one of the school buildings. But no choice is being given to having HSR platforms close to the Amtrak station which avoids the high school despite the two alignments crossing each other.
On the RailPAC website at railpac.org there is a post of comments by an engineer with a long history of working on rail projects. His experiences working with the consulting firms working for CAHSRA was very discouraging. He points out the original planning for HSR in Los Angeles called for a 4 mile long straight track in the heart of downtown Los Angeles in order for trains to bypass Los Angeles at 220 mph through the downtown Los Angeles HSR station. Four miles is twice as long as a typical runway at a large airport. The prospect of any trains bypassing the largest station on the California HSR system is highly unlikely. In Europe when trains do bypass a large city they often build the bypass outside of town where construction costs are lower. Our engineer also comments that the CAHSRA consultants assume grades no higher than 1.25 % for “passenger comfort” for elevated structures. But building at 1.25 % requires double the amount of elevated structure than building at 3% which is common for many rail viaducts; in Germany grades as high as 4 % have been used on high speed track segments.
It is because of the strong push back by local groups and government that rational changes have been made to the flawed plans of the CAHSRA consultants. The width of ROW being planned on the Peninsula HSR alignment is being reduced. Between Los Angeles and Anaheim local pressure created a rational alignment alternative which puts HSR at grade level inside LAUS and for the sharing of tracks between Amtrak Surfliner, Metrolink and HSR which greatly reduces construction costs and creates the long needed run through tracks at Union Station. But shouldn’t these issues been planned for and reasonable alternatives presented by the consultants in the first place? Why are the proposals so expensive where construction should be cheaper, yet the consultants try to nickel and dime where people are most impacted? Why do the local people have to do the consultant’s job? Maybe it is because it creates more billable hours for the consultants?

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