What will be in the California State Rail Plan? January 5th, 2013
Opinion by Noel T. Braymer
On February 8th a draft for a revised State Rail Plan will be released and with it will begin during the month of February a period for public comment about the plan. What makes this edition of the State Rail Plan special is that it will cover the plans for future service made possible by the funds approved last year to start construction of High Speed Rail in the State. What is needed in this plan is both priorities of capital projects needed for better rail service and improved connections between services to increase ridership and improve the economic performance of the State’s Rail Passenger Services. At this time is is hard to get the facts of what is being planned to connect the State Corridor Rail Services with future High Speed Rail, commuter rail, rail transit and bus services . For this we need some idea of when trains will be scheduled, how frequent they are and how fast they can be run. Even the question of what or where the stations will be is not certain. Hopefully these issues will be resolved in the coming months. But for all we know there may not be any clear idea what is in store in the next 5 to 10 years.
At the heart of this is what is going to happen in the San Joaquin Valley? We have 5 Billion or so dollars committed to build 130 miles of new grade separated high speed railroad between but not yet to Merced and Bakersfield. There are plans by 2018 when this new railroad is finished to run some, likely additional express trains up to 125 miles per hour in the San Joaquin Valley on this new railroad in addition to the current San Joaquin Trains on the BNSF route. I have questions about how many new trains will run at up to 125 miles per hour on this new railroad and will these new trains continue on to Oakland and Sacramento? Will these faster trains share stations with the existing San Joaquin Trains so passengers can transfer between trains? What are the plans in the future for the San Joaquin Trains and how and where will passengers transfer between theses trains? At least one recent study suggested that passengers are going to have to transfer by bus between separate stations in places like Fresno and Bakersfield:this is unacceptable. Also unclear is will service in the near future on the current San Joaquin Trains be able to go faster? There have been plans for years for increased double tracking, signal and trackage improvements which would raise speeds on much of the route of the San Joaquin’s to at least 90 miles per hour. Will such improvement be available on the entire route for the regular San Joaquin’s and would this be used by the express trains north of Fresno for travel to Oakland? If the number of express trains is 5 additional round trips which is likely the most additional trains the BNSF/UP route of the San Joaquin’s can handle, will there be any additional use of this new railroad in the Valley besides as a high speed test track? Could the San Joaquin Trains also use this new railroad for faster service with track connections so they can rejoin the BNSF to serve stations the new railroad will miss at Wasco, Corcoran and Hanford? Can future San Joaquin Trains share the new railroad to serve the new Fresno Train Station being build for High Speed Rail?
A major part of the planning before 2025 is the creation of feeder services to future higher speed rail service. This includes the creations of the Northern California Unified Service which will connect Capitol Corridor, San Joaquin, and ACE rail services to provide easy transfer between these trains and with future High Speed Rail. This likely assumes extending ACE service to Merced and perhaps Sacramento with additional trains over the Altamont Pass to San Jose. But what is unknown at least to most is how soon will this happen, how many new trains will be able to run over the Altamont Pass or to Sacramento and will there be one or two stations in Merced when High Speed Rail is built? Also what is unclear is what improvements will be needed for the creation of Northern California United Service and is the funding available? What trains and how many will connect from Bakersfield at Merced to San Jose? Hopefully the draft of the revised State Rail Plan will shed some light on these questions.
The Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority has prepared it’s own Rail Plan which will be included in the new State Rail Plan. The issue is fitting the other pieces of the State’s Rail Corridors to the Capitol Corridor. The Pacific Surfliner Trains connect with the Capitol Corridor with several connecting buses. These buses feed many passengers to both trains. Improving these connections between both trains and to these and other buses is important to increase ridership and extend service to more places. The Coast Daylight which is the long delayed direct service on the Coast Line between Los Angeles to San Francisco is in the State Rail Plan as will be future service from Los Angeles to the Palm Springs area which should in time be extended to Arizona as the Capitol Corridor should in time be extended to Reno. To get these long delayed services requires the cooperation of the Union Pacific Railroad. Besides keeping these projects in the State Rail Plan, coordinated local efforts are needed to provide both the carrots and sticks necessary to negotiate agreements for these new services with the UP.
Getting back to the Surfliners, this service is in need of a makeover to increase ridership and revenues. This is a goal of the proposed new LOSSAN Joint Powers Authority. Extended service and faster running times are major parts of a Surfliner make over. There is interest in faster express Surfliner service as well as express rail service in Los Angeles County to Palmdale. With the construction of run through tracks at LAUS and track improvement mostly in San Diego Countyby 2018, running times should be improved for the Surfliners and commuter trains between Los Angles and San Diego. With run through tracks it will be possible to run more direct trains from points south of Los Angeles to points north. This would include both Surfliner and Metrolink Trains. Reduced running times for the Surfliners should be expected by 2018 which will increase ridership between San Diego and San Luis Obispo. Improved Metrolink service would reduce the need for additional Surfliner service between Los Angeles and San Diego. With connections between Surfliner and both Metrolink and Coaster Trains it will be possible to serve more people at faster running times with fewer stops to longer more profitable distances than with the current schedule. This could allow all Surfliner Trains to run faster between Los Angeles and San Diego and continue beyond Los Angeles. This could include the existing trains between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. But there is a market for more service north of Los Angeles to Palmdale. What seems to be missing so far are definite plans in the next 5 to 8 years for significantly faster rail passenger service for the Surfliners or how they will connect with faster service through the San Joaquin Valley to the Bay Area or Sacramento region.
A simple way to achieve these goals would be to extend some Surfliners as far as Palmdale as express trains. This would provide faster San Diego to Los Angele service, but by extending service to Palmdale add additional markets to improve the service’s marketability. To add an another major market for these trains would be better direct bus connections at someplace like Santa Clarita to Bakersfield to connect with express trains to the Bay Area and connections to Sacramento by roughly 2018. With such express service running times between San Diego to Los Angeles in under 2 hours and 15 minutes could be possible. Running times between Los Angeles and the Bay Area could be cut to 8 hours or less which would be time competitive with auto travel. With direct service from Orange and San Diego Counties plus good Metrolink connections at LAUS to Bakersfield we could ensure good market penetration from the south to the Northern Sacramento Valley and the Bay Area before 2020. This will increase support for more and faster rail passenger service in the State when more people in the State can see and use trains to travel faster around the State.