Opinion by Noel T. Braymer
The opposition of the California High Speed Rail Project is largely to the cost of the project and the amount of private land being considered for condemnation to build it. These problems were created by language in Prop 1A which calls for service between Los Angeles and San Francisco in 2 hours and 40 minutes or less. This is less than the current running time for most Amtrak service between Los Angeles and San Diego. To meet this goal Trains would have to travel in the San Joaquin Valley at speeds up to 220 miles per hour. This would be for only 1 express train an hour with one intermediate stop. To attain such running times would require smoothing out curves and building short-cuts on new rights of way in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley. Creating new rights of way is what is driving up much of the cost of this project and upsetting property owners who would lose their land if the project were built as proposed.
There is a right of way which the State already owns which by-passes the cities in the San Joaquin Valley where it would be much cheaper to build such a High Speed Rail raceway: the I-5 Freeway in the San Joaquin Valley. With only one intermediate stop you could fly through the Valley on this raceway. Using Bakersfield as the intermediate station would give connections to the rest of the Valley on an express train to and from Los Angeles. This would give you a high speed express right of way which would be much cheaper to build, avoid large condemnation of land and still meet the requirements of the Prop 1A. It is also the last thing that should get built.
What can be done quickly which would avoid local opposition is to upgrade most of the existing railroad for higher speeds with some new relocated stations. Many of the existing trains stations could still be served with local service along with with additional faster express trains. Passenger Rail Service with Federal Rail Administration approved upgrades can run as fast as 125 miles per hour even without full grade separation. Higher speeds would be possible with grade separation and improvements. It wouldn’t be as fast as the 220 mile per hour raceway needed to get express trains to San Francisco to LA in 2 hours 40 minutes, but it wouldn’t need to be that fast. To get much value out of speeds over 200 miles per hour you can’t stop very often. You can see this every day at stop lights where the slow pokes catch up at traffic lights with the street racers. Tearing up the San Joaquin Valley to serve a few trains that skip most of the Valley at great expense doesn’t make sense. Building on improving what we already have does.
We need to build a State Wide Rail Passenger Service, not a LA to San Francisco Bullet Train. That starts by accelerating rail passenger service improvements across the State which would connect with the spine service in the San Joaquin Valley. The key to all of this is a fast connection between Bakersfield and Los Angeles to get a decent rail passenger connection from Southern California to the San Joaquin Valley and the Bay Area. The retiring CEO of the California High Speed Rail Authority, Roelof van Ark has said that rail operators are only interested in investing and running passenger service in California after such a connection is built. Lack of such a connection is the biggest bottleneck in providing decent State Wide Rail Passenger service.
Only after we have good, fast local service between San Francisco, the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California should we think about a new express raceway on I-5 and worrying about competing with the airlines between Southern California and the Bay Area by rail. First work at giving people alternatives to crowded freeways and increasingly expensive gasoline.