By Noel T. Braymer
I was never a big fan of the planning for the California High Speed Rail Project. I have long wanted State Wide High Speed Rail service in California. But what was originally planned by the California High Speed Rail Authority was often long on glitz but short on substance. Much of the planning by the consultants for the California High Speed Rail Authority ignored the need to connect with existing rail passenger services or to share stations and infrastructure. With their fixation on faster running times no attention was made to the trip times for many travel markets in the State. The Authority promised more than it could deliver with available funding. There was a good chance if the project went ahead as planned it would suck up money at the expense of the rest of the rail program in California.
When the Prop 1A Bond Issue measure went before the voters in 2008, I was with the majority that voted for it. I don’t regret my vote. I had no illusions that the High Speed Rail project would go smoothly or be built on schedule or according to plan. But I couldn’t pass up the nearly 10 billion dollars in new capital for rail passenger construction. I particularly liked the part that almost a billion of that would go for conventional passenger rail projects.
The revised California High Speed Rail Business plan of 2012 was a big improvement over what was originally proposed. What I liked most about it was the package of funding approved by the Legislature for more money to local projects that had in many cases have been waiting decades for funding. The plan to upgrade the San Joaquin Trains to use the new high speed tracks between Bakersfield and Madera insured that if there was a major delay or collapse of the High Speed Rail project there would still be improved and faster rail service in this decade.
There are several other projects that have been funded as part of the deal to go ahead building High Speed Rail and accepting $3 billion dollars in approved Federal Funding in 2012. The most important to me is for construction of run through tracks at Los Angeles Union Station. This has been proposed since at least 1980 and has finally been funded for completion by 2017. Why are run through tracks so important? Metrolink today carries no more than 50,000 passengers a day and not all of them come or go to Union Station. Union Station has a total of 13 passenger tracks which Metrolink shares with Amtrak. Los Angeles Union Station now has roughly 90 round trips trains most weekdays creating 180 train movements a day. This is more trains than the station handled during World War II when it had 16 passenger tracks. The result is congestion on the station’s tracks during peak periods.
Now compare this to Gare de Chatelet-Les Halles which is the busiest commuter rail station in Paris. With only 7 passenger tracks serving 4 platforms this underground station has almost a half million passengers a day during the work week. At peak travel this station handles 120 trains an hour. Needless to say Gare de Chatelet-Les Halles is a run-through station providing through service to and from either end of the lines; trains don’t terminate at this station like most trains at Los Angeles Union Station. With 8 out of the 13 passenger tracks at Los Angeles Union Station planned to be rebuilt for run-though service the station will have plenty of track capacity in the future as well as reducing running times for many trains coming and going through Los Angeles.
Another project being funded as part of the High Speed Rail project includes electrification of Caltrain between San Jose and San Francisco. This will reduce running times with improved acceleration, lower costs per passenger and of train operations while increasing passenger capacity of Caltrain. Electrification will also allow Caltrain to use the new Transbay Transit Center near Market Street and the Embarcadero in downtown San Francisco.
Also getting High Speed Rail related money will be the Altamont Corridor Express to expand and improve service. This includes track and equipment improvements for faster speeds and shorter running times. This will also include additional trains between Stockton and San Jose as well as connecting rail service to Modesto and Merced. As part of this there will also be better connections between ACE with the Capitol Corridor and BART.
The big question remains will there be State wide High Speed Rail service and how soon will it be running? I don’t have an answer to the question of when and I doubt anyone else honestly does either. But I’m sure it is only a matter of time we will see a High Speed Rail network in California connected to the other rail passenger and bus services. This will happen when we see constant ridership growth and support for more rail passenger service.
How do we get future rail ridership growth? It’s no secret. Run clean, frequent trains at average speeds near or over 50 miles per hour with good connections at stations to the local communities and to other cities. Run more trains on longer routes with run-through stations serving more markets and earning more revenues with higher value longer distance tickets. Keep ticket prices attractive and regularly offer specials and discounts to keep trains full. The more people ride trains and experience good service the more people will demand more passengers trains to more places and the sooner we will get the funding to run them.