High Speed Rail: Don’t Forget San Diego!

By Noel T. Braymer
The earliest San Diego can hope now to get direct High Speed Rail service is sometime after 2029. By 2029 the planning of the California High Speed Rail Authority is for 500 miles of High Speed Rail service between Anaheim and San Francisco. San Diego is the second largest city in California. The population of  San Diego’s metropolitan area is over 3 million. Include the population for the metropolitan area of nearby Tijuana and there is almost 5 million now and the population is growing on both sides of the border. If you add Orange County which will be served only at its northern edge at Anaheim, that’s another 3 million for around 8 million in Orange County and San Diego-Tijuana of people to connect with High Speed Rail. This compares to the metro population of the San Francisco Bay area which includes San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose at 7 million, which will have up to 4 High Speed Rail Stations compared to the one at Anaheim.
The average running time for all  Pacific Surfliner trains between San Diego and Los Angeles is now 2 hours and 47 minutes. By 2022 people will be able to travel by train from Burbank to Merced in less time. That’s an average speed of about 46 miles per hour now between San Diego and Los Angeles. In 1978 the scheduled running time for all passenger trains between San Diego and Los Angeles was 2 hours and 35 minutes. Clearly trains have been slowing down, not running faster between San Diego and Los Angeles in the last 36 years despite over a billion dollars of track improvements..
Before 2029, more can and should be done to reduce the running times by train between the two largest cities in California. By 2022 we should have faster service from San Diego to connect at Burbank to High Speed Rail to Merced. Many of the components to do this are already in place or being built or planned. It is just a question of finally getting them to all work all together.
For years the plan for service between San Diego and Los Angeles is to raise the speeds of the trains up to 110 miles per hour for an end to end running time of under 2 hours. This would be an average speed of about 64 miles per hour. This compares to the 46 miles per hour average speed of the Pacific Surliners today between San Diego and Los Angeles.
To reduce running times will require running the trains faster: both with higher top speeds and raising speeds where the trains now go slowly. It will also require spending less time stopped either at sidings or at stations. The combination of these can get the running times under 2 hours with top speeds of 110 miles using existing equipment and technology available on this corridor.
There are 4 expensive bottlenecks in southern Orange and San Diego Counties. These include 2 miles of 25 mile per hour running on single track in the canyons between Sorrento Valley and Miramar in San Diego. There is also the single track on the bluffs of Del Mar. Also there is single track in San Juan Capistrano. But the biggest bottleneck is the single track between San Onofre and Dana Point with 40 mile per hour speed limits in San Clemente. The ultimate solution for all of these would be double tracking with tunneling.
The estimated costs for tunneling in Del Mar with double tracking that would replace the single track on the cliffs, is almost a billion dollars. This is almost the entire budget for all the rail projects planned now for San Diego County. A new tunnel and station at University Towne Centre is estimated at 2.5 billion dollars. This would replace the slow running in the nearby canyons. So far there are no estimates of the cost of a tunnel from San Juan Capistrano to San Onofre but at over 10 miles it will be expensive.
But with construction already underway and by accelerating projects already planned it would be possible to run Pacific Surfliner trains between San Diego and Los Angeles at around 2 hours and 10 to 15 minutes. This would be a significant reduction in running times and could be done well before 2029 .
A good example of this is the Southern California Interregional Connector Project or SCRIP at Los Angeles Union Station scheduled to be finished by 2020. This will create “run-through tracks” in and out of LAUS. This will save time getting into and out of the station and reduce the running times between San Diego and Los Angeles as well as between Los Angeles to Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo.
Between Los Angeles and Fullerton there is 15 miles on the BNSF mainline that Caltrans has been working on for years to grade separate and add a third and fourth track to increase track capacity and faster speed for passenger trains. This will include a grade separation between passenger and freight trains at BNSF’s Hobart Yard. These improvement will be well along by 2022 and should include running time reductions.
In San Diego County the 60 miles between the border with Orange County and San Diego is now 55 percent double tracked. In the next few years double tracking in San Diego will be greatly increased. By the end of 2015 most of Camp Pendleton will be double tracked, reducing delays from missed meets. There is a 100 million dollar project to be built in a few years to double track the canyon area south of Sorrento Valley and raise the running speed from 25 up to 45 miles per hour. This will reduce running times and delays from missed meets.
Orange County is not idle either. South of Fullerton to the Laguna Niguel/ Mission Viejo Metrolink Station the line is fully double tracked. Orange County is planning to add a third track in Irvine to allow express trains to pass slower local trains in the corridor. To reduce the conflicts at the single tracking in San Juan Capistrano, Orange County is planning to extend double track from the Laguna Niguel/Mission Station to San Juan Capistrano to a point just north of the San Juan Capistrano Station. The right of way in San Juan Capistrano is wide enough for double tracking. The problem is mostly local opposition to construction in the oldest part of town around the station and near the mission.
Orange County is also studying extending Serra Siding south of San Juan Capistrano a mile south along the coast by Dana Point. San Diego County is also looking at extending double track from the current San Onofre siding a mile north to the edge of the border with Orange County. These improvements should reduce time lost from congestion and allow faster running times. Increasing speeds through San Clemente would also make a difference. Things have changed a great deal since the 1970’s in San Clemente. The 40 mile per hour speed restriction was due to the heavy pedestrian traffic along the tracks and the beach. Since then pedestrian paths along the tracks have been created which allow beach access while fencing off the tracks to keep people off of them. San Clemente is now a Quiet Zone, which means with improved grade crossing, trains horns don’t have to be sounded unless there are people or vehicles on the crossings. Raising speeds would save time and is overdue in San Clemente.
Reducing the number of stops between San Diego and Los Angeles is one way to run the trains faster. This has been tried in the past and the problem was ridership has always gone down instead of up. The reason for this is fewer station means fewer markets served, so fewer reasons for people to take the trains. This doesn’t mean you can’t run express trains and carry more passengers. What is needed is connecting local trains serving all stations to transfer passengers to express trains that miss the local stations. This could be done with Metrolink and Coaster trains connecting with Surfliners.
But the simplest and most effective way to reduce running times on the Pacific Surfliners would be to reduce the time stopped at stations. Between San Diego and Los Angeles there are at least 7 intermediate station stops on the Surfliners. If you saved 2 minutes from each stop that would be 14 minutes at least you could cut from the schedule. When the Pacific Surfliner equipment was introduced in 2000 that was the plan. With low floor loading and 2 large automatically opening doors per car you can reduce the time needed stopped at a station. But we still see in the schedule 4 to 5 minute for each stop which is needed for the older cars with a limited number of open, narrow doors with several high steps which are much slower to load, But since at least one set of the older equipment is still needed to run the current schedule, all trains must stop for the same amount of time.
The model for the new LOSSAN Joint Powers Authority is the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority. One of the things the Capitol Corridor JPA did was to reduce running times on their trains. Using equipment similar to the Surfliner cars, the Capitol Corridors trains cut back on the times stopped at stations. This was was opposed by Amtrak which thought the trains wouldn’t run on time. The Capitol Corridor continues to have the best on-time performance of any Amtrak Train, running in the high 90’s percent on-time every month. No only did the management of the Capitol Corridor reduce the “dwell” time at station but they aggressively improved maintenance of the tracks and the trains to insure the trains run on-time.
One advantage the Capitol Corridor has over the Pacific Surfliners is the State owns the trains. On the Surfliner’s most of the equipment is owned by Amtrak. On the Capitol Corridor the State contracts with Amtrak for equipment maintenance and can oversee the work. This hasn’t been the case with the Surfliners. Even simple problems like trouble with doors closing can delay trains. When locomotives break down, that’s an even bigger problem. Keeping track of the condition of the trains is central to running trains on time.
With new equipment now on order it will be possible to retire the older slow loading equipment from the Surfliners. But that will depend on how many trains are run and how crowded the trains are. One simple solution to using the older equipment is to add faster loading surplus Metrolink cars to the trains. With such mixed trainsets it will be able to load passengers as quickly as with the Surfliner equipment. What is needed more than anything else is determination to run the trains faster and on time. Amtrak has resisted this in large part because they are often late even on their own NEC. Yet we have seen this work on the Capitol Corridor with excellent results. We should expect no less between the 2 largest cities in California.
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