Editorials

Is it Full Speed Ahead Now for California High Speed Rail?

By Noel T. Braymer

This October 15th the California State Supreme Court upheld the ruling of an Appellate Court releasing Prop 1A Bond funds for construction in the San Joaquin Valley for High Speed Rail. By a vote of 6 to 1 the State Supreme Court decided not to take up this case for review. The higher Court’s overturning the ruling of Judge Kenny in this case was predicted over a year ago by the California High Speed Rail Authority and the Brown Administration. With the Bond Money cleared for use, it can be used with Federal Funding now being spent as the State’s share of matching funds. High Speed Rail construction is now cleared to build between Bakersfield and Merced.

With this State Supreme Court ruling the way is clear to buy High Speed Rail Trainsets, electrification of the new railroad in the San Joaquin Valley as well as selecting and building the maintenance/storage yard for the new trainsets. The major cities in the San Joaquin Valley have been fighting over winning this major job center and economic boost for their local depressed economies. The plan after 2018 is to use the tracks between Merced and Bakersfield as a test track for the new equipment to test the trains at speeds up to 250 miles per hour. Top speed for passenger operations will be “only” 220 miles per hour.

By 2018 the California High Speed Rail Authority will be receiving steady funding from the Cap and Trade program. Using this funding the CHSRA will leverage this money to borrow more money to start construction south of Bakersfield to Burbank. By 2022 the first passenger service on the 300 miles between Merced and Burbank will produce some revenue along with Cap and Trade funding which will allow additional borrowing for more construction. After 2022 the plan is to expand High Speed Rail service to 500 miles between San Francisco and Anaheim by 2029.

For the initial 300 mile Burbank to Merced segment to work will require feeder trains from Metrolink and Amtrak to Burbank by Bob Hope Airport. These feeder trains will depend on the construction of the Southern California Regional Interconnector Project (SCRIP), the new run-through tracks at Los Angeles Union Station. This will allow trains to quickly stop at Union Station and continue to or from any direction to directly serve other areas such as Bob Hope Airport. This feeder service is needed to bring passenger from most of Southern California to connect with High Speed Rail at Burbank.

Connections are also planned with the Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) at Merced to Fremont and San Jose. The extent of this connecting service to High Speed Rail is planned at 10 round trips a day.The success and profitability of this first segment of California High Speed Rail will depend on the connecting services to feed passenger to it.There is the possibility of connections from Merced to Sacramento on the San Joaquin trains. But the San Joaquins will be using a different station than High Speed Rail. Additional service beyond the 2 round trips available today to Sacramento is needed. There are no firm plans so far for more trains to Sacramento.

With 32 round trips planned in 2022 between Burbank and Merced, that’s a lot of seats to fill. The plan is for an operator to pay the High Speed Rail Authority for the franchise to operate the High Speed Trains and to do so at a profit to them. This is common practice in much of the rest of the world with High Speed Rail. California has a huge market for High Speed Rail travel. The critical part is getting people to where they are coming from or going; to and from the High Speed Train Stations.

There is no firm timetable for when High Speed Rail service will be extended to San Francisco or Anaheim other than it will be no later than 2029. The biggest problem in San Francisco is funding the tunnel from the existing Caltrain terminal at 4th and Townsend to the new Transbay Terminal in the heart of the Financial District. Major property owners are fighting the tax assessment district that would raise the funding for the tunnel to extend Caltrain and High Speed Rail to the Transbay Terminal.

Extending High Speed Rail south of Burbank to Anaheim is largely an issue of waiting for grade separation projects to be built on the existing railroad right of way. This will handle both the 32 round trips a day by 2022 and 64 round trips by 2029. No final design has been agreed upon for an entry into Los Angeles. This will be either an elevated line or tunnel  south of Glendale to a new high speed rail station next to Los Angeles Union Station. These expensive projects will take time to raise funding and to build. There are no plans at this time to extend limited service south of Burbank to Los Angles or Anaheim which would require electrification of the existing railroads.

After 2029 there are plans to extend High Speed Rail to San Diego via the Inland Empire and to Sacramento. Before 2022 or so there are expectations to share High Speed Rail tracks from Burbank to Palmdale with High Speed Trains to Las Vegas using right of way on a new highway between Palmdale and Victorville and the I-15 Freeway right of way from Victorville to Las Vegas.

Any project of this size (budgeted for $68 Billion dollars) can expect more problems and opposition. No doubt there will be more challenges and changes of plans between now and 2022, to say nothing of what will happen after 2029. But this year has seen the process for starting construction of this project, which has been in planning since 1996 to finally begin. It is no longer a question now of if, but of how much and how soon High Speed Rail service will begin in California. No doubt the opposition will continue threatening to file lawsuits. But the only lawsuit that slowed down construction of High Speed Rail is now dead and buried by the Courts of California.

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