Comparing The Benefits Of The First $7 Billion Investment In California High Speed Rail—Bakersfield North vs. Bakersfield South

Commentary by Ralph James, RailPAC Member, Blue Canyon CA

This commentary is a follow-up to this writer’s original commentary entitled “Is California High Speed Rail on Track for Successful Implementation?”, published in spring 2010 illustrating the futility of spending early HSR dollars in the Central Valley as compared to other sections of the ultimate HSR route.

In the intervening two years the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) has made clear its intention to construct the first section of high speed right-of-way in the Central Valley between the vicinity of Fresno and Bakersfield, “Bakersfield North” in this discussion. “Bakersfield South” in this discussion is construction via Tehachapi Pass between the existing Amtrak station in Bakersfield and the existing Metrolink station in Lancaster. It is not the purpose of this commentary to debate the merits of routing HSR via Lancaster/Palmdale or the I-5 corridor; that is an independent issue. Travel times via the I-5 corridor would be about a half hour less than those detailed herein if that option were considered.

General Assumptions

Construction costs for all options would be of approximately equal magnitude for budgeting purposes, in the vicinity of $6 -7 Billion.
No electrification or purchase of electric-powered equipment would be included. Right-of-way would initially serve conventional Amtrak California trains. Maximum speed of conventional trains on high speed right-of-way would be limited to 110 mph based on the capabilities of existing equipment. Maximum speed of conventional trains on the steepest portions of high speed right-of-way is estimated at 80 mph with diesel power. The actual speed possible could vary significantly based on actual train length, train weight and specific locomotives assigned.

Maximum speed on unimproved portions of San Joaquin and Metrolink routes would be increased from 79 to 90 mph with Positive Train Control (PTC) where possible without major realignment. San Joaquin schedules of four Bay Area and two Sacramento round trips per day would be unchanged for the start of revenue service over newly constructed HSR segments.

For “Bakersfield South”, thru-running of San Joaquin schedules to San Diego (four of six round trips are time-appropriate) and thru-running of Surfliner schedules to the San Joaquin Merced crew base (one round trip is time-appropriate) is assumed to fully integrate the corridors. Additional conventional equipment would be required for “Bakersfield South” to permit extension of San Joaquin schedules from Bakersfield to Los Angeles and San Diego.

These assumptions, taken as a group, are intended to reasonably approximate conditions that would exist in 7-10 years when the initial segment of HSR right-of-way would be opened for revenue service. Minor deviations from these assumptions can add or subtract minutes here and there but do not alter the conclusions to be reached.

Discussion of Bakersfield North

For purposes of this comparison, construction of HSR infrastructure is assumed to begin at a point approximately 15 miles north of Fresno on the BNSF/Amtrak corridor, swing westward to the Union Pacific corridor along Highway 99 through Fresno, return to a route roughly parallel to the BNSF corridor to the Hanford area and on to Bakersfield for a total distance of approximately 125 miles. These particulars are derived from public information including the CHSRA website, and are subject to variations.

Travel times north of Bakersfield are based on a simplified model that travel on the existing route would be at a track speed of 90 mph except where limited by existing restrictions through the cities of Fresno and Hanford, the Laton curves and the approach to the Bakersfield station. All intermediate stops would be maintained, and an average of 5 minutes elapsed time would be added for each stop to allow for deceleration, station dwell and acceleration back to track speed.

Travel over the proposed HSR route on this section would be at a track speed of 110 mph with no intermediate restrictions. All intermediate stops would be maintained and an average of 6 minutes elapsed time would be added for each stop based on longer deceleration and acceleration times required from the higher track speed. The simplified model includes Merced crew change allowance and intermediate recovery time approximating that used in current schedules.

Construction costs per mile in the Valley should be lower than in other proposed sections of HSR due to relatively long distances between dense population centers and lack of mountainous terrain. A significant portion of this cost advantage, however, is lost due to the many miles of elevated structures that are proposed in the most recent CHSRA business plan.

Discussion of Bakersfield South

For purposes of this comparison, construction of HSR infrastructure is assumed to begin at or near the current Bakersfield Amtrak station, with appropriate modifications to the existing track structure to accommodate through running and avoid conflict with BNSF freight movements. As described on the CHSRA website, the route would roughly follow SR58 from Bakersfield to Mojave, then roughly follow SR14 to Lancaster, a distance of approximately 77 miles, where it would join the current end of Metrolink track to Palmdale and Los Angeles.

Approximately one third of the distance between Bakersfield and Lancaster is through difficult mountainous territory. Construction over this portion would be fully compatible with HSR standards but would include only single-bore tunnels to save initial construction costs on one of the most expensive components of HSR. Without overhead electrification, all bores could easily accommodate bi-level California Cars, but it is this writer’s opinion that tunneling should be adequately sized to permit eventual operation of bi-level HSR equipment (or electrified conventional equipment) for maximum flexibility and capacity improvements over the long run. Depending on specific design details, major bridges could also be initially constructed as single-track structures where cost savings could justify the temporarily reduced operational flexibility. Adequate passing sidings and/or double track are assumed in other areas to maintain schedule reliability.

Travel times calculated for Bakersfield/Lancaster are based on a simplified model similar to “Bakersfield North”, but with a limitation of 80 mph applied on the steepest portion of the route with diesel locomotives. With this consideration, actual speeds are assumed to be 110 mph only between Bakersfield and the start of serious grades east of Edison and between Tehachapi and Lancaster. A single intermediate station stop is assumed at Tehachapi and is allowed 6 minutes and the station stop at Lancaster/Palmdale is allowed 5 minutes.

Travel times calculated for Lancaster/Los Angeles are based on a track speed of 90 mph, but recognizing the significant speed restrictions in place through Soledad Canyon, Santa Clarita and the summit tunnel near Newhall. Three intermediate station stops are assumed in the vicinity of Santa Clarita, Sylmar and Glendale/Burbank with an allowance of 5 minutes each. Also assumed are additional passing sidings and double track on the Metrolink route to maintain schedules with significantly increased traffic.

Construction costs per mile in the mountainous sections south of Bakersfield will be higher than in the Valley, but with an incremental approach, substantial costs can be deferred until increased traffic levels can justify the additional investment required to double-track the entire route.

Note 1: Case 1 baseline from 2011 published timetables. Transfer times average both directions from all schedules with thru connections. Maximum track speed 79 MPH with standing restrictions for curves.

Note 2: Case 2 based on assumed implementation of mandated PTC on conventional San Joaquin route. Maximum track speed 90 MPH with standing restrictions for curves (no realignments from 2011 baseline).

Note 3: Case 3 assumes Case 2 upgrade to 90 MPH track speed on conventional portion of route with no curve realignments. *Assumes transition to HSR alignment north of Fresno per published construction plan and train speed limited to 110 MPH by equipment design.

Note 4: Case 4 assumes Case 2 upgrade to 90 MPH track speed on conventional San Joaquin route with no curve realignments. Five minutes of end-point recovery time removed at Bakersfield for thru-running. Assumes transition to HSR alignment south of Bakersfield connecting with existing Metrolink track at Lancaster. Assumes capability of 110 MPH operation but actual speeds on steepest portions limited to approximately 80 MPH by power requirements with diesel locomotives. Assumes minor upgrades to Metrolink track, 90 mph where feasible and only 3 stops to reduce travel time from 2011 Metrolink schedules.

Note 5: Stockton times reflect rail travel 4 of 6 trips Oakland, 2 of 6 trips Sacramento. Other trips bus bridge.

As can be seen from the accompanying time comparison tabulation, nothing approaching “High Speed Rail” travel times between Northern and Southern California can be achieved from the initial HSR construction segment, regardless of the route or location chosen. Using the most likely scenario of 90 mph track speed under PTC on the San Joaquin and Metrolink corridors, $7 Billion spent north of Bakersfield buys about a half hour of time savings on a trip from Northern California to Southern California and still requires a 2 1/2 hour bus ride and one or two transfers. The same investment made south of Bakersfield via Lancaster does not materially change the travel time to downtown Los Angeles, but the bus ride and transfers are eliminated thus saving about an hour to points south to San Diego.

Several conclusions can be drawn from the above numbers. First, some travel time reduction will be gained from the first HSR construction wherever it is, but the roughly one hour maximum savings from an all day trip of 8 to 11 hours by itself is not going to attract any significant ridership. Second, the assumptions made to calculate travel times (not just maximum line speed) such as the specific route selected, coordination of connections, thru running at Los Angeles and the improvements made to existing routes can also have a very significant effect on travel times, plus or minus from the mid-range assumptions made herein. Third, there is much room for improvement on the Pacific Surfliner corridor where 90 mph track speed is already available, but end-to-end speed averages only about 47 mph.

Justifying the Investment

If a very modest reduction in travel time cannot justify the $7 Billion cost (which it obviously cannot), what then would bring some sanity to this level of expenditure of public funds? The only justifications available are greatly increased convenience and opening a large market for rail travel where none presently exists. Construction in the Central Valley clearly cannot increase convenience when a “California High Speed Rail” trip requires a 2 1/2 hour bus ride to reach Los Angeles and a long walk and long second transfer to reach points south to San Diego. There are no new markets created beyond those that exist today. In fact, if HSR construction bypasses some of the smaller stops of Corcoran, Wasco or Madera as has been speculated in some reports, there will be a decrease in convenience and market.

Construction between Bakersfield and Metrolink, whether via Lancaster/Palmdale or the I-5 corridor, immediately produces tangible benefits that meet both justifications. Convenience is drastically improved by offering for the first time a single-seat ride between Sacramento or the Bay Area and San Diego. Also for the first time in nearly half a century direct rail service will link the San Joaquin Valley to the Los Angeles basin. For the first time ever, this rail service will be auto-competitive and will open a large market that has never existed for the rail traveler.

Conclusion

For HSR to be successful and be supported by the public, each incremental investment must produce an incremental return of commensurate value. Even if by some magic the entire HSR system were to be in place overnight it would take years or decades to develop the ridership needed to fully support it. Thus it is critical that each segment be designed and paced to capture the most incremental ridership and build public support on a steadily increasing customer base. A stranded asset of the magnitude envisioned by building first in the Central Valley will not attract commensurate ridership and might well be cause to discredit the concept of HSR for decades to come.

If transportation value is the desired goal for the first segment of HSR construction, decisions must be based on engineering rather than political evaluations, convenience to the traveling public rather than convenience to politicians or operating entities, value for public dollar rather than windfall for organized labor and immediate usefulness of the completed segment rather than future usefulness only if many more Billions are spent.

It is becoming more and more evident that the dominant considerations driving the current CHSRA planning concern political districts (construction jobs in high unemployment areas of the Valley), timing based on national politics (start building before the November 2012 elections or lose federal funding), turf-building between operating entities (Amtrak not committed to using Valley HSR if built, no coordinated operational planning with Metrolink or Pacific Surfliner) and the familiar line that it is necessary to spend extra Billions now for potential 220 mph running through metropolitan areas to ensure some arbitrary end point timing in the indefinite future. If the concept of High Speed Rail in California is to remain alive, planning must return to engineering-based decisions, funding must not be held hostage to political timetables, decisions must keep public convenience and financial constraint at the forefront, all potential operating entities must work together without turf-building and the highest importance must be assigned to the immediate benefits obtained. Initial investment must build a necessary segment of the ultimate plan, but must be viewed as if no additional funding were available for the second or additional phases—which is exactly a best-case scenario of today’s reality.

Construction of HSR is not a question of Democrats vs. Republicans, Liberals vs. Conservatives or District A vs. District B. It is a question of common sense vs. politics-as-usual of any stripe. If common sense cannot prevail it is, unfortunately, time to back off until it does.

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