By Noel T. Braymer
Progress for improved Rail Passenger service in California is often uneven. But through the years progress continues to be made. Track work and plans for expanding service are ongoing for the Surflners, Metrolink, Coaster, San Joaquins, ACE, Capitol Corridor and Caltrain. Rail transit service throughout the State is also improving and feeding more passengers to transportation centers served by regional and intercity passenger rail.
What is holding up faster progress for passenger rail service is, as always money: actually the lack of money. But the need for alternatives to driving is growing as the cost of driving keeps going up and traffic congestion continues to get worse. People are moving to major urban areas in California. This is for sound economic reasons since transportation costs are lower plus travel distances and travel times are shorter in urban areas with good rail service.
Recently the Federal Government granted Los Angeles $670 million dollars for the Regional Connector project. This is a $1.4 billion dollars subway tunnel under downtown Los Angeles which can now start construction and should be finished by 2020. This new tunnel will make it possible for riders on the Blue, Gold and Expo Lines to travel faster and with fewer transfers through downtown Los Angeles to and from all points of the compass. Currently for riders on the Blue, Gold or Expo Lines to transfer between these lines requires a connection on the Red or Purple Lines between 7th and Flower to Union Station.This often requires 2 transfers and riding 3 trains. For many trips the Regional Connector will cut that to no transfers and just one train trip. It is estimated this will save 20 minutes for many riders.
This same level of direct connection is needed for rail service in California throughout the State. We have 2 big “gaps” in California for rail passenger service. One of these is along the Coast with only 1 daily train between Los Angeles and San Jose. The other is between Los Angeles and Bakersfield. For now rail passengers must transfer to buses to travel north or south of these two cities.
People travel all throughout the State, not just in one local region or between major cities. We have seen major progress over the last 35 years for rail passenger service in Southern California, the San Joaquin Valley and Bay Area. But what is missing are good connections between these regions for rail passenger ridership to really take off.
This is where we again run into the problem of lack of money. To build just the railroad, without electrification, rolling stock and so on between Bakersfield and Palmdale is estimated to cost $10 billion dollars by the California High Speed Rail Authority. To get the UP’s cooperation to run more and faster service along the Coast will easily cost hundreds of millions of dollars. On the LOSSAN Corridor between San Diego and San Luis Obispo over the years about $2 billion dollars has already been spent and more is still needed.
To get some prospective, Los Angeles County along with the $1.4 billion for the Regional Connector is also spending $2 billion for 8.5 miles of Light Rail on their Crenshaw Line, the 6.6 mile extension of the Expo Line to Santa Monica will cost $1.5 billion and 11 miles of light from Pasadena to Azusa on the Gold Line is nearly $800 million. In addition they are also going to build 9 miles of subway to extend the Purple Line from Western Ave to Westwood at $6.3 billion dollars in the future.
That is just over 30 miles currently planned of new rail service in Los Angeles County at over $11 billion dollars. Los Angeles has plans for even more rail service. How is Los Angeles County doing this? They get some Federal and State monies. But the majority of this funding is from local sales tax money. If Los Angeles alone can afford to build these, why can’t the State with an annual budget of over $100 billion dollars a year and an economy of over 2 trillion dollars spend more to invest in rail services and future economic growth?
What is behind the growth of rail passenger service? The secret is nothing succeeds like success. As rail passenger service improves and expands, more people demand more and better rail service.The projects now under construction are testimony of the success of past projects to improve rail service, draw more riders and grow the economy. A major project also underway in Los Angeles is the Southern California Regional Interconnector Project. This will create run-through tracks at Los Angeles Union Station (which will also undergo major improvements). These run-through tracks will increase track capacity at Union Station, reduce running times for trains to and from the station and make it possible to extend direct service through Los Angeles to more places. It will do for regional rail what the Regional Connector will do for rail transit in Los Angeles.
Expanded service on the Coast Line between Los Angeles and San Jose will lead to better connections between the Coast, Bay Area and San Joaquin Valley. This will lead to connections to Caltrain at San Jose as well as on the Capitol Corridor and ACE and the future extension of BART to San Jose. In the future we should see better connections planned as well at Union City to BART with a joint station for Capitol Corridor and ACE for faster service to Oakland and Market Street in San Francisco. As each piece fits into place, the demand for building the needed projects will grow.