Should High Speed Rail Share the Tehachapis?

Analysis by Noel T. Braymer

The most expensive part of running any railroad is not above the rails but below the rails on the right of way. With any capital intensive investment the way to recoup the cost is to use it as much and generate the most income as possible. This is particularly true of High Speed Rail which will need very expensive civil engineering with long tunnels and viaducts. The key to building a High Speed Rail Passenger system in California is to connect Northern and Southern California. The most expensive and difficult part of doing this is through the mountains south of Bakersfield.

It is no secret that rail freight is more profitable than passenger service. California is going to need all the financial help it can get to build this most expensive but critical segment and we should look for all the help we can get. One way to raise funding for building in the mountains and paying to run a new high speed railroad there is to share use of it with other rail carriers. This can be done with both other passenger carriers and freight trains. The most obvious objections to doing this would be the incompatibility of High Speed Passenger trains with slower passenger trains and slower and much heavier freight trains.

But this is not unprecedented even in California. Light rail passenger service and freight service share tracks in San Diego County. Light rail and freight don’t share the tracks however at the same time since a collision between the two would be disastrous. Freight traffic happens only at night when there are no light rail trains on the tracks. Shared use of High Speed Trains, slower passenger trains and freight trains happens in Europe. The best known example of this is the Chunnel, the 31 mile English Channel rail tunnel between France and Britain. Besides high speed passenger service the Chunnel also has auto/truck ferries with passenger cars for the vehicle occupants as well as freight trains.

The Chunnel was built with private funding. It is being paid for from tolls by the different rail services using it. It hasn’t been easy making payments and a few times the loans for the Chunnel have had to be renegotiated to avoid bankruptcy. But the investors are still being paid. Something similar to this has been done between the Harbors of Los Angeles and Long Beach to the rail yards near downtown Los Angeles with the Alameda Corridor. The Alameda Corridor is a fully grade separated high capacity publicly owned railroad built to meet growing harbor traffic while eliminating traffic conflicts at grade crossings in this region. The construction of the Alameda Corridor is being paid for by tolls from the trains using it.

A division of German Railways, DB Schenker is involved with freight traffic all over the world. One part of DB Schenker is the primary rail freight hauler in Britain. As such it has rights to carry freight to over much of Europe from Britain under the English Channel through the Chunnel. Not only does DB Schenker use HSR tracks through the Chunnel but also on High Speed 1. High Speed 1 is the 67 mile high speed bypass rail line to London from the portal for the Chunnel in southern England. Not only is German Railways (Deutsche Bahn) running freight trains in Britain but it is planning to extend passenger service by 2015 to London from Frankfurt, Rotterdam, Amsterdam and Brussels. Other rail operators are also looking at more direct rail service from other European cities to connect to London though the Chunnel and High Speed 1.

The State of California as the owner of an expensive railroad could use this as a model for the future HSR Line. More than one operator should be able to use the HSR line in California. One example would be future service to Las Vegas. At the very least Las Vegas trains will need to share tracks from Palmdale to Los Angeles. But direct service also to Sacramento and San Jose/San Francisco could also be seen in the future to Las Vegas.

A question that needs to be answered is will this double tracked, grade separated high speed line have the capacity to run both HSR passenger trains and other services? By 2040 the expectation is there will be 64 trains a day between Los Angeles and San Francisco. In a 16 hour service day that is 4 trains an hour in one direction assuming these are 64 round trips. Earlier planning by the California High Speed Rail Authority expected up to 84 trains a day which in a 16 hour service day is 5.25 trains an hour. Four trains an hour is a train every 15 minutes in each direction. At 6 trains an hour that is a train every 10 minutes.

The Chunnel is designed to run 20 trains an hour in each direction which is a train every 3 minutes. In theory that would be 480 trains a day 24 hours a day in each direction. Currently rail traffic in the Chunnel is running at half of potential capacity which is why there is planning for additional trains particularly passenger trains to more destinations. The Chunnel has a top speed of 100 miles per hour for high speed passenger trains and 60 miles an hour for freight trains.

A maximum of say 6 High Speed Rail Trains an hour in one direction with no more than 2 slower passenger trains at 125 miles per hour is within the capacity of a railroad that should handle up to 20 trains an hour. Even when you take in the issue of faster trains overtaking slower trains these trains will only need to share segments on the new right of way. These segments that could have joint use or “blending” would likely include from Sylmar to Palmdale and Hanford to Madera for some shared segments with local Metrolink or Amtrak trains. It will be better to have one station in Fresno than two a mile apart. Faster local service to Palmdale is also desirable. Even on these segments some additional third tracks built at grade and not in a tunnel or viaduct would provide passing tracks to prevent traffic conflicts.

As for freight traffic assuming reduced capacity for maintenance purposes at night might mean 3 trains an hour in each direction. In an 8 hour window say between 10 PM and 6 AM that is still 24 trains in each direction a night. Considering that freight trains are much longer than passenger trains those 24 trains can carry a lot of business and revenue.

The biggest challenge for future High Speed Rail service in California is not between Bakersfield and Mojave, but between Palmdale and Sylmar. Building a high speed alignment will require major tunneling and will be very expensive in Los Angeles County. Most of the freight traffic by rail in the Tehachapis is headed east of Mojave and north of Bakersfield. The current freight line in the Tehachapis is very congested. Construction of some additional double tracking on this line will add capacity but future traffic growth is expected to use up that capacity soon after it is built.

On the I-5 and Highway 99 in the San Joaquin Valley both roads have a great deal of truck traffic. Rail freight now is not a viable option to relieve future congestion for truck traffic in the San Joaquin Valley. Creating a new fast freight service in the I-5 Corridor would be possible using new High Speed Rail tracks between Sylmar and Bakersfield. If we compare the distance between the Chunnel and High Speed 1 at 98 miles to the 138 miles between Sylmar and Bakersfield we see using the former as a model for the later isn’t unreasonable. In California there is more room for passing tracks and less need for tunneling in the mountains compared with a tunnel under the English Channel.

So what kind of track alignment are we talking about? If we tried to run all freight traffic in this area on High Speed Tracks this would likely require a long straight fairly flat tunnel over 20 miles long to move freight quickly between Bakersfield and Mojave to meet the future demand in a limited time during the night. To run freight all day may require a third tunnel. This would be very expensive.

If we limit freight to comparatively light fast trains such as Trailer on Flat Car (TOFC) and container trains, then such trains could run on higher grades with electric locomotives at speeds up to 70 miles per hour. This would be competitive with truck traffic and give this line a high level of capacity. The faster you can run trains, the more trains can get through the tunnels. This could include trains from Sylmar and trains bypassing the existing railroad at Mojave to Bakersfield. These trains would use existing freight lines from Bakersfield, Mojave and Sylmar. During the day there is nothing to stop the use of modified High Speed Passenger equipment to be used for express package service along with High Speed Passenger trains serving most of California and parts of Nevada on High Speed Rail lines.

The biggest challenge to building a profitable High Speed Rail service is not operating the trains, but paying the cost to build and maintain the new railroad after it is running. As with any capital intensive investment the best way to to this is keep it in revenue service as much as possible, 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Freight by truck is a major market and the major north/south freeways along the spine of California are congested already and often subject to closure due to major accidents and foul weather. Service flexibility will be needed to get the funding for future High Speed Rail. The more interests that have a stake in building High Speed Rail means there will be more support for it and less opposition to it

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