By Noel T. Braymer
The California High Speed Rail Authority put off decisions back at their June 7th Board meeting over the final routes through Hanford and Bakersfield. At this meeting the CHSRA’s board did approve the contract for the first 29 miles of construction between Fresno and Madera. It also handed over most of the responsibility and funding for faster service over the Altamont Pass to the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission which operates the Altamont Corridor Express or ACE.
The reason for these delays in approving final routes for High Speed Rail through Hanford and Bakersfield is the strong opposition to the alternatives being presented to the local communities. The opposition stem from local impacts and loss of private property. The most vocal opposition in the San Joaquin Valley is from the farmers around Madera where a new right of way would be built on acres of local farmland to connect future High Speed Rail from Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley south of Fresno to San Jose and San Francisco over the Pacheco Pass.
There is a simple and economical solution to these problems. Run the 220 mile per hour express trains on the I-5 in the San Joaquin Valley. This right of way is already publicly owned and it will be cheaper to build ultra high speed tracks on the I-5 than creating new alignments with private property. Most of the opponents of the current plan support use of the I-5 for High Speed Rail as well as improved local rail service in the San Joaquin Valley.
Where would this leave the current plans for High Speed Rail in the San Joaquin Valley? Most of the construction being planned now will share the BNSF right of way between Fresno and Bakersfield. By staying mostly on this right of way and condemning much less private property the money saved can be used to add new tracks and improvements to raise speeds between Merced and Stockton for the planned faster San Joaquin in 2018. Federal money is available for upgrading tracks for speeds from 110 miles per hour and faster.
The tracks between Merced and Bakersfield won’t have to be built for 220 miles per hour speeds for the entire route if express trains run on the I-5. The time lost to slow down at a few curves will be minimal for the local trains which have to stop at stations where many of these curves are anyway. No stations need to be built on the I-5 which saves money. Only the express trains need to go 220 miles per hour all the time to travel LA to San Francisco in under 2 hours and 40 minutes. Staying on the BNSF right of way will also speed up construction and make it easier for the State to finish the project on time. This will insure that service improvements in the San Joaquin Valley are ready by 2018 for planned expanded rail passenger service.
So what should be done with the I-5 now? First thing that will be needed is a plan to preserve the right of way on the freeway for future use for High Speed Rail. For the I-5 to work as the High Speed Rail bypass for express trains it will need connections to Southern California, the major San Joaquin Valley cities up to Sacramento and to the Bay Area. Before building the I-5 segment a fast alignment from Palmdale to Bakersfield will be needed before express trains can run on the I-5.
The first connection would be south-east of Bakersfield. A new station outside of downtown Bakersfield could be the transfer point for passengers headed to or from Bakersfield and the rest of the San Joaquin Valley. Instead of going through downtown Bakersfield, express trains could use an existing branch line that would be greatly improved to connect with the I-5. This won’t be the most direct route but higher speeds can make up time. From there tracks can continue up the I-5 to the Tracy area. Near Tracy trains could connect with the upgraded ACE trains for connections over the Altamont Pass to the East Bay area and San Jose. With trackage rights to use the UP right of way at speeds up to 110 miles per hour there could be continuous High Speed Rail service through Stockton to Sacramento from Southern California. Current plans for expanded High Speed Rail service to Sacramento now depend on cooperation from the UP. The State will have to be prepared to make an offer the UP can’t refuse with the money available to build it.
Another connection that will be needed will be for direct trains from Bakersfield and Fresno to the Bay Area.The problems of using farmland in Madera can be avoided. For this there is an existing rail branch line heading west from downtown Fresno which could be extended to the I-5. From the I-5 in the future High Speed Trains can use the alignment over the Pacheco Pass to Gilroy, San Jose and San Francisco for service to Fresno, Hanford, Bakersfield and Southern California.
All of this will need to be built in increments, with successful service being the springboard for more expanded service. With two routes there can be both local service in the San Joaquin Valley and express long distance service for markets in California as well as future connections out of State to Nevada and Arizona. Using the I-5 for high speed express service and upgrading the existing line for high speed local service will be a very popular solution eliminating most of the opposition in the San Joaquin Valley to the current High Speed Rail project. This eliminates most of the need to condemn private property while providing a very fast express service State wide while improving local connections and service in the San Joaquin Valley.
With time running out to get construction built on time this approach will allow rapid and easier construction between Madera and Bakersfield now. It can allow more improvements for rail service in the San Joaquin Valley than now planned in the near future. This will eliminate the reasons given for opposing this project by land owners in the San Joaquin Valley. This could break lose years of stalemate on this project and create support of the next leg from Bakersfield to Palmdale. If a deal with the opposition can be made so they will support faster local trains and express service on the I-5 this will end most of the political games to stop California High Speed Rail.This will give the opponents most of what they have been asking for. This will take most of the wind out of the sails of the groups using California to derail future improved rail passenger service in the rest of the country