We Can Learn Much From The TGV

Opinion By Noel T. Braymer

The first modern High Speed Train was the Japanese Shinkansen between Tokyo and Osaka which opened for the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics. It had what was then the amazing top speed of 125 miles per hour.

The trains themselves were fairly conventional electric multiple unit trainsets with an aerodynamic looking rounded nose which lead to them being called outside of Japan as “Bullet Trains”. The key to the high speed of the Shinkansen was the expensive civil engineering of the track bed which was fairly level and straight. When planning the Shinkansen it was decided to build it as a standard gauge train on a whole new alignment. The existing rail lines in Japan where all narrow gauge and badly congested. Building a new standard gauge alignment would be better for high speed, allow for greater passenger capacity and easier to build than using the old narrow gauge lines.

When the French Railroad SNCF started service on the first TGV in 1981 they did several things differently than the Japanese. The trains themselves were products of years of research. The trains were much more aerodynamic, more powerful, and lighter plus had a better suspension system. Reducing the impact at high speed as the trucks pounded the rails greatly reduced track maintenance. The first TGV trains had a top speed of 170 miles per hour. The trunk line of the first TGV line was between Paris and Lyon which like Tokyo and Osaka were the two largest cities in their respective countries and conventional rail lines of both corridors were already congested.

In France the TGV unlike the Japanese was built so that it could be used both on a special high speed right of way and on the conventional tracks already available. A high speed right of way was built between Paris and Lyon for the exclusive use of the TGV. It was built in the open countryside where construction costs were fairly cheap. The high power of the TGV trains allowed the new right of way to have greater grades than a convention railroad which also saved money in construction. However for the original service the TGV used the existing stations and trackage to get into the urban areas around Paris and Lyon. Constructions in urban areas are the most expensive places to build and the short distances save little time at such high speeds. But the TGV was not a corridor service that only ran between Paris and Lyon. The original TGV service had branches that went as far as Switzerland and extended south of Lyon as far as Marseilles. The French may not have called it Matrix Theory, but they knew how it worked.

Looking at California, the most critical right of way for high speed rail service is between Los Angeles and San Jose. Much of the area is either open countryside or has available rights of ways that can handle a high speed rail alignment. The single most expensive segment of the California High Speed Rail Project is estimated at 4 billion dollars between Los Angeles and Anaheim. The alignment between San Jose and San Francisco will also be expensive and both will take a long time to build and face many problems. For High Speed Rail service to succeed it will need branches to as many markets as possible as well as connecting services to feed traffic to it.

We should learn from the TGV and build the most important and least expensive segment first and immediately start revenue service. This will start bringing in badly needed money and create enthusiasm to continue building the project. Also like the SNCF we can use existing rail lines to expand service. That can mean having some trains going from San Jose to San Francisco even it that means terminating at first at 4th and Townsend before the full line is upgraded to the Transbay Terminal. That means extending trains south of Los Angeles to Anaheim all the way down the coast to as far as Irvine or maybe San Juan Capistrano if additional double tracking is available. This includes extending trains north of Merced with an upgraded track for speeds between 90 to 110 miles per hour to Sacramento. And there can be trains extended east of Los Angeles to as far as Riverside with a connection to Ontario Airport.

What about electrification? The original HSR line from Paris and Brussels through the Chunnel to London ran on a busy commuter rail line in Britain with 600 volt dc third rail electrification. High Speed Rail equipment can be versatile. In France the SNCF run TGV trains in some non-electrified territories by being towed by a diesel locomotive. If you want a more elegant method you could add small light weight gas turbine generators to the power cars to run the trains. You won’t being going faster than 110 miles per hours so you won’t need as much power as from catenary. Granted rail lines are going to need upgrading to be used to extend HSR in California. The means more double tracking, higher levels of track maintenance, Positive Train Control for added safety and speeds over 79 miles per hours as well as fewer or upgraded grade crossings. Some of the improvements intended for the final alignment such as to San Francisco and Anaheim can be built and used for the phase 1 non-electric service.

Is this crazy? This is how the SNCF made the TGV successful. We should follow the example of the SNCF. The California High Speed Rail Project is in danger of collapsing under its own weight from its complexity and massive costs. The uncertainly of the State’s budget or ability to pay back bonds can sink the whole project The best way to get any big project done is to break it down into smaller parts and do things one step at a time instead starting everything at once and finishing nothing.