By Noel T. Braymer
Over the last 35 years or so there have been many ups and downs to expanding Rail Passenger Service in California. While things may seem rocky now, the future is very promising. Just look at how far things have come in Los Angeles since 1990 when the first 22 miles of Light Rail opened. Los Angeles now has 87.8 miles with 6 lines of Light Rail and Subway service. By 2023 Los Angeles County has funding and plans to increase that with 31 miles of new service with extensions of the Purple, Gold and Expo lines, a new Crenshaw line between LAX and the Expo Line and a new subway in downtown Los Angeles connecting the Blue, Gold and Expo Lines and extending service from Union Station to Long Beach.
This won’t be a perfect system, but a major improvement over what Los Angeles has now for rail transit. Rail service is making an impact in Los Angeles. The trains are usually full. New housing is being built at all of the rail lines as more people seek to drive less or not at all to get to work, shop or play. Much of this new transit based Los Angeles is centered on Union Station. The county has bought it and is planning major development around Union Station to carry more people by rail on transit, regional and intercity trains.
San Diego is busy now spending hundreds of millions of dollars rebuilding much of its Trolley Light Rail System.This will include all new Trolley cars with low floor loading and easy wheelchair access. San Diego is also after years of planning getting ready to start construction of an extension of the Trolley from Old Town to the UCSD area with 11 miles of new tracks at $1.6 billion dollars by 2018. The Trolley has reshaped much of San Diego with major development around Trolley Stations and downtown San Diego.
Connecting San Diego and Los Angeles are the Surfliner trains. The LOSSAN Joint Powers Agency started out in the 1980’s as a network of city councils members along the train route between San Diego and Los Angeles who wanted better rail passenger service for their cities and the region. This has grown to include the area up to Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. As service improved between Los Angeles and San Diego, this inspired more rail passenger service around Southern California in 1992 with the start up of Metrolink. Metrolink now has 512 miles of routes. This will be increased by 24 miles by 2015 with the extension of the 91 Line from Los Angeles to Riverside out to Perris with 4 additional stations.
LOSSAN is now being reorganized into a Joint Powers Authority. This will give it more power, a bigger budget and control over operations of the the trains between San Diego and San Luis Obispo. LOSSAN’s job will be to increase ridership, revenue and improve service on the Surfliner trains. But it will also need to create more connections and increased transfers between the Surfliners with Metrolink and Coaster trains in San Diego County. The key to ridership growth will be better connections between services, seamless one ticket ticketing between services and competitive fares with other forms of transportation. To do this will require the different services to work together and coordinate their services. Too often now Metrolink and Surfliner trains miss each other sometimes by just minutes. LOSSAN is needed to do that with Amtrak, Metrolink and Coaster services plus the connections to local transit.
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There are many construction projects programmed on the LOSSAN Corridor. This includes several miles of double and triple tracking by 2018 in San Diego, Orange and Los Angeles Counties. Track and platform improvements for more trains are planned at Oceanside, Poinsettia Carlsbad and Van Nuys. There is a new station under construction now at Anaheim. The biggest news is the plan by 2017 for run-through tracks to be built at Los Angeles Union Station. More parking is also planned at many stations.
There is $6 billion dollars to be spent in the San Joaquin Valley by 2018 to build 130 miles of high speed tracks between Madera and Bakersfield. This will be used first by the San Joaquin trains with new bi-level passenger cars and new locomotives going 125 miles per hour by 2018 or so. This will mean additional and faster trains between Bakersfield, the Bay Area and Sacramento. As part of this improved connections for future High Speed Rail are planned by 2023 with the Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) Trains. The San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission (SJRRC) operates ACE and is now the administrative agency for the new San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority. This is similar to the new JPA for LOSSAN.
ACE has many plans for expanded and improved service between San Jose and the northern San Joaquin Valley. There is planning to expand the current 4 round trips a day between Stockton and San Jose to 6 by 2018 and 10 by 2022. This would include service expansion with trains extended also to Modesto by 2018 and Merced by 2022. The passenger service from Merced past Manteca is planned to be run on the UP which ACE already runs on to San Jose. This will serve the downtown areas of these cites and more of the local population than the BNSF route of the San Joaquins. ACE is also planning improved connections with future High Speed Rail, the San Joaquin Trains, BART and the Capitiol Corridor Trains. This will include connections to Oakland and Oakland International Airport.
ACE also has plans for track improvements on the UP for faster service and more track capacity. Many of these plans are not yet funded. But there is local support for many of these projects. Much more so than for High Speed Rail in many parts of the San Joaquin Valley. But much of this planning is rooted on funding from the High Speed Rail project and traffic from connections with High Speed Rail. Also more local funding will have to be approved by the local voters to fund some of these improvements.
The Capitol Corridor was the first California rail passenger service to be managed by a Joint Powers Authority. The Capitol Corridor is the model for the new JPA’s for LOSSAN and the San Joaquin Valley. It would like to run more service northeast of Sacramento towards Reno. But for now it has one commuter round trip on this segment to Auburn. The UP has shown no interest in allowing anymore passenger trains going towards the Sierras. What the Capitol Corridor is working on is extending trains south of San Jose to Gilroy and Salinas. In the works will also be better connections with ACE and with BART.
There is also Caltrain. It has funding and soon will electrify its line between San Jose and San Francisco.This will reduce operating costs per passenger. reduce running times for local commuter trains and increase passenger capacity. Caltrain will also be getting a new station and terminal extended into downtown San Francisco at the Transbay Transportation Center which it is planned will also be shared latter with High Speed Rail as well as Caltrain’s right of way between San Jose and San Francisco.
The big unknown is what will happen after 2022 in California? Funding is the big unknown, particularly Federal Funding. Even in the best of times projects take longer to get built than planned due to waiting for funding. For example planning for the run-through tracks at Union Station goes back to at least 1980. But in time the good projects finally get built and many other projects either become more modest or wither and die. This will particularly affect the rate and extent of High Speed Rail construction in California. One thing is certain, we will be seeing more and faster train passenger trains in the future in California. Critical for the future for inter-California Rail Passenger service is a new fast connection between Bakersfield and San Fernando Valley. When will this happen? Perhaps the best advice is from the 20th Century Physicist Niels Bohr who said ” Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.”