HSR, Commuter Rail discussed at Steel Wheels in CA

Report by Dennis Lytton, RailPAC Director and NARP Council Representative

Saturday I attended the joint meeting of RailPAC and NARP at the Los Angeles Metro headquarters building at [Los Angeles] Union Station.

The day of presentations included updates from Metrolink’s CEO on future plans including express service to start in May and PTC implementation. Californians for High Speed Rail’sDaniel Krause talked about their vision for seeing HSR implemented in California and Friend for Expo Transit and the Sierra Club’s Darrel Clarke discussed lessons from grass roots organizing for light rail in Los Angeles.

NARP Chairman Bob Stewart updated the group on national efforts for passenger rail and HSR, affirming as one of the organization’s goal’s as seeing a true HSR system established in the US in the next several years. Gene Skoropowski gave an excellent presentation. Known to many of us as the managing director of the Capital Corridor, he is now a consultant at HNTB working on the LOSSAN [Los Angeles-San Diego] corridor. He gave a very good presentation on the success of the Capital Corridor working with Union Pacific, updates on trying to rationalize service on the Surfliner corridor and establishing commuter service to Santa Barbara.

Remarking on the Florida Governor’s rejection of federal HSR funding (despite the guarentees potential builders made for the project’s financing), Skoropowski said that Alstom and other contractors feel thoroughly burned by Florida, a state that was once on target to have America’s first true HSR

The High Speed Rail Authority’s Project Manager Hans Van Winkle gave a very good update on the project. A former Army Corps of Engineers Major General and senior manager at Parsons Brinckerhoff, he opened by grabbing the latest edition of the California Rail News, a harsh critic of the Authority and addressed their cover story attacking the current first segment through the Central Valley. He showed a very well developed skill dealing with stakeholders no doubt developed from his years of dealing with big projects managed by the Army and other large organizations.  He gave a general update of the project’s state and next steps forward to get to the Bay Area and the LA basin.

Most interesting, he expressed the staff’s current thinking that they may try to reach Los Angeles from Palmdale on the conventional railroad right-of-way to get service from LA to San Francisco on a quicker timeframe, without of course abandoning the goal of true HSR from LA to SF. I think that some of this is a reaction to the pushback from the gold plating and initial phasing being pushed in 2009 for the short LA to Anaheim segment. Full HSR build out for this 30 mile segment hardly seemed a good use of limited funds. The authority has seriously backed off LA to Anaheim for now, delaying decisions on it until 2012.

One possibility for a one seat ride would be a true HSR ROW from Merced to Palmdale, using the conventional row to the East Bay and Los Angeles while the Pacheco and SR-14 high speed ROWs are being built. This incremental approach would probably be more in line with the way most European HSR systems were (and are being) developed. The lack of mainline electrification and the ownership structure of the conventional railroad in this country compared to Europe is an obvious but not insurmountable difference.

I think that the Authority, given the year-to-year funding of HSR from Congress, is doing a good job of keeping all options open for the system. I think a one-seat ride from LA to SF, even with some conventional ROW running, would be a smashing success from day one. Given the strong financial interest expressed from private groups just the other day, there is room for optimism. Obama’s push for a five year plan for HSR is also another good sign despite the dysfunction shown by the House of Representatives’ current majority.

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