What California Needs From High Speed Rail

by Noel T. Braymer, RailPAC President — Faster Rail Passenger service not only increases ridership but also improves productivity. It does this by carrying more passengers per day with the same number of train crews and equipment. To achieve these results require major investments in equipment and trackwork. A fast, efficient railroad infrastructure can benefit not only intercity passenger rail, but commuter and freight services as well. The biggest bottleneck in California to faster intrastate rail service is between the San Fernando Valley and Bakersfield. No single project could do more to improve intercity, commuter and freight service in California.

Between Sylmar and Santa Clarita is an old single track rail tunnel which is a major bottleneck for Metrolink and future intercity service north of the San Fernando Valley. Between Santa Clarita and Bakersfield is the current rail route between Los Angeles and Bakersfield. It can take up to 5 hours or more to travel by train between Los Angeles and Bakersfield on this route. Much of the problem is with the route through the Tehachapi Mountains. This major freight corridor is heavily congested and in a mountainous area where running speeds are slow and construction costs high. The I-5 and 99 freeways in the San Joaquin Valley are heavily traveled by big rig trucks which are a major source of pollution in the San Joaquin Valley. This north-south truck traffic will continue to grow increasing the growing congestion on California’s primary transportation artery.

The Airline Industry seems to always be in trouble. Times are getting worse for the Airlines with rising fuel prices adding to existing woes. Given the difficulties the Airlines have making money, why would anyone want to compete for the same markets as the Airlines by rail? To travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco in under three hours would require almost non-stop service. But there are a lot of cities and people between LA and San Francisco that express service would skip. Serving most of California would be slower than flying, but much faster than driving, which is how most people travel. For most people economy is more important than speed. The “Chunnel” between London, Paris and Brussels is learning this where their ridership is hurting from discount airlines offering slower service, but at half the price. We need a fast rail service that competes with the auto for convenience, price and speed, not the airplane. Instead we need a passenger rail service which serves the airports to feed passengers, not compete with the airlines.

Given the high capital costs of construction, the greatest utility from any investment should be made. Passenger Rail trains capable of traveling over 130 miles per hour in most countries are very light weight. Many of the problems the Acela has comes from mixing lightweight European parts with ARA mandated impact standards which made the Acela trainset much heavier than passenger trains overseas. If a lightweight trainset were used here in California it could not share the same tracks with other trains. This would be no better than building Mag-Lev. Many High Speed rail projects around the world share tracks with slower conventional passenger and freight trains. Exclusive high speed running is limited to open country where construction is cheap and urban area are served by alternative routes.

Perhaps the biggest concern is, will a High Speed Rail project contribute to the rest of the rail passenger network, or suck away badly need funding from other projects. It certainly will if other services are not able to share in using major track improvements built for a high speed rail system. In almost every form of transportation through out history, freight is the primary user and most profitable. The freight railroads have congestion problems which require major track improvements. Passenger services, both commuter and intercity share trackage with freight railroads. A healthy railroad benefits both passengers and freight. Any projected supported by the taxpayers of California must benefit the largest number of people and interests, if it hopes to be built and succeed.