Latest episode of the California High Speed Rail Soap Opera. March 9th, 2012
Opinion by Noel T. Braymer
At the end of February and start of March there were confusing headlines about the California High Speed Rail Project. Based on a memo by the chief counsel of the California High Speed Rail Authority Thomas Fellenz, there were headlines saying start of construction was being delayed from this Summer until Spring 2013 in the San Joaquin Valley. But construction would still be finished by 2017 to qualify for Federal Funding. Then the Authority’s chief executive Roelof van Ark announced the opening of bidding for start of construction this year.
What it boiled down to besides terrible messaging was that most construction of the 130 mile route between Bakersfield and Merced would be delayed. The hope was that construction would begin on the 29 mile segment this year between Fresno and Madera. Then there was the story that Dan Richard, the chairman of the California High Speed Rail Authority saying that use of Highway 99 was a possibility for High Speed Rail in the San Joaquin Valley. The California High Speed Rail Authority has been around since 1996.The justification for giving California the largest share of Federal High Speed Rail funding was that California’s planning for High Speed Rail was much closer to construction than that of other States. But here we are just months before the deadline for the start of construction and much of the project may have to be redesigned. So what did we get after paying over 800 million dollars for planning over the last 16 years? The good news at least is the Brown Administration had the common sense to admit that the project as proposed wasn’t going anywhere.
What doomed the original plans for High Speed Rail in the San Joaquin Valley was the opposition by large land owners to having their land condemned. For many people using the right of way of Highway 99 for High Speed Rail would seem to be a dream solution. First it would use a publicly owned right of way so no private land would be needed. Second Highway 99 was generally built next to the old Southern Pacific Railroad in the San Joaquin Valley. Since the SP was built first in the best location much of the development and population of the Valley is centered near the SP line compared to the Santa Fe Railroad in the San Joaquin Valley. So what could go wrong? What created most of the problems for the Authority were from trying to build a railroad for speeds over 200 miles an hour. Even with long segments shared with the BNSF there were segments where curves were too tight for 200 mph operations.But building new right of way off the BNSF in populated areas would greatly increase construction costs for the High Speed Project. The solution proposed by the consultants for the Authority was to go through “cheap” farm land. Well we know now how that worked out. Get on a service like Google Maps and take a close look at Highway 99 in the San Joaquin Valley. You will notice that it has many tight curves. These often happens as a highway goes through a town. If you look at a satellite image of the nearby railroad now own by the UP you will see the railroad is straighter than the highway. In the open country there is generally a median in Highway 99 which could be used for building a railroad at grade which is the least expensive way to build. In many areas the right of way for the highway looks wide enough that 99 could be widen to fit a railroad in a highway median. But look at the 99 in urban areas and there is little room left to put in a railroad. That would mean miles of elevated construction and or new alignments off of the highway likely on surface streets such as planned for the new alignment in downtown Fresno.
A highway is built for vehicles as large as trucks going at most around 70 miles per hour. Even for a conventional railroad the curves and grades of most highways would be difficult for use by a railroad. Remember the plan is to build a railroad for speeds over 3 times faster than motor vehicle traffic. Using the 99 to build a high speed railroad will have major engineering problems. An existing railroad in the San Joaquin Valley such as the BNSF can be upgraded with separate passenger tracks for speeds between 125 to 170 miles per hour with a few slow spots below 125. But to try to rebuilt the BNSF for constant speeds over 200 mph will look just like what the consultants for the Authority proposed which created so much opposition. A question that is never asked is what happens to the San Joaquin trains after High Speed Rail is built. The Authority has so far shown few signs of coordinating with the existing trains in the San Joaquin Valley and seems to want them to go way. If that were to happen many towns in the Valley would lose train service and many people in the Valley would have less rail service with High Speed Rail.The Union Pacific route for passenger would serve more population than the BNSF and many San Joaquin leaders want to move the San Joaquin trains on to the UP. The problem with that is the UP has made it very clear that the answer is no.
The biggest problem with the California High Speed Rail project is the goal to run trains between Los Angeles and San Francisco in under 2 hours and 40 minutes. Not all trains just one an hour in each direction with only 1 intermediate station stop. We could build a heck a good railroad for speeds up to 170 miles per hour for much less money than what is being talked about now, but it wouldn’t get between LA and San Francisco in 2 hours and 40 minutes even only stopping once. The Authority claims that Prop 1A which provides the Bond Money for HSR mandates the 2 hour 40 minute running time . Dan Richard, chairman of the California High Speed Rail Authority has ruled out using I-5 for high speed rail. He claims it would create development along I-5 which would compete for water from farmers in the area . The I-5 has been in the San Joaquin Valley for over 40 years. In that time most of the development in the westside of the Valley has been limited to gas stations, fast food, motels and warehouses for trucking companies at the few off ramps by the freeway . If in 40 years a freeway can’t create new cities, how will a high speed rail line do that if it doesn’t even stop there? The whole point of going over 200 miles an hour is to not stop. On the I-5 there is little reason to stop. Generally I-5 has a broad median that could be used to build a railroad at grade. Avoiding tunnels, elevated structures, stations and having many fewer curves than Highway 99 would make construction much cheaper for a high speed railroad on I-5. You could create connections to I-5 largely using existing rail branch lines to Bakersfield, to Hanford/ Visalia and a connection to Fresno combined with sharing some highway. You would still need to improve existing railroads to run local service in the San Joaquin Valley. We might see more track relocations such as planned for Fresno to move the train station west of the current station on the BNSF. But it will likely prove uneconomical to build a new passenger railroad for 200 plus miles per hour speeds the full distance on Highway 99.