By Noel T. Braymer
A basic concept in safety and reliability is redundancy. A good example of this was in the past when cars had spare tires and often got flat tires. Having a spare tire meant maybe 15 minutes of changing a tire instead of being stranded for who knows how long waiting for a tow truck. I remember in the 1960’s during the “Race to the Moon” how on television reporters would go on about how manned space rockets had redundant systems. What that meant was major systems like life support or communications often had one or more back up systems for travel into “outer space”. At about the same time auto makers added redundancy to car brakes. Most cars up the 1960’s had just one hydraulic brake system. Since the 1960’s cars have 2 hydraulic systems with one for the front brakes and the other for the back brakes. If one of the hydraulic system failed, you would still have half of the car’s braking power, which is enough to let you stop. If you only had one hydraulic braking system and it failed, basically you have no brakes except maybe downshifting and trying to stop using the parking brake. So what is my point with all this? We shouldn’t let ourselves be dependent on only one form of transportation. In this country this usually means roads and cars. When there is a problem or an emergency traffic can come to a halt. We’ve just seen this happen in Santa Barbara.
Since first the fires, then the heavy rains in the Santa Barbara area, have come massive mudslides which have shut down Highway 101 for almost 2 weeks. By comparison the UP was able to get rail service back and running in a couple of days. With the 101 shut down, the railroad is the only alternative for travel through Santa Barbara. Even with additional passenger cars on the Amtrak trains, Amtrak was forced to leave some passengers at the platforms because the trains were full. But things would even be worse if there wasn’t rail service running along the coast. The current situation in Santa Barbara is not unique. In emergency situations evacuating people, particularly those who don’t have cars, or when the roads are jammed or closed can make things difficult or even impossible for travel. Yet there is little in the planning to use rail service resources in times of emergency. What would really help now would be to borrow equipment from Metrolink and run shuttle service at least between Ventura and Santa Barbara. Better yet would be temporary expanded Metrolink service between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles until things can return to normal. Why isn’t this being done? Because most of the railroad in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties is single track, and there isn’t the track capacity to add more trains.
California is lucky to have the rail service it has. Back in 1994 the Northridge Earthquake shut down several freeways. Metrolink was less than 2 years old at that time, but was soon busy carrying extra people because of several destroyed freeway bridges. This also brought about the extension of Metrolink to Lancaster in the Antelope Valley. With the collapse of the Highway 14 interchange to the 5 at Sylmar, the Antelope Valley was largely cut off for commuters to the general Los Angeles area. Metrolink is now a major part of transportation in the Antelope Valley. Before Northridge in 1989 there was the Loma Prieta Earthquake which destroyed several segments of freeway including shutting down the Bay Bridge between San Francisco and Oakland. Both Caltrain (which was one of the few things running the night of the earthquake) and BART came into their own after the earthquake. Ridership on BART grew dramatically as one of the few ways to cross the bay. Even today BART is at near capacity carrying passengers between Oakland and San Francisco. BART often carries as many or more people across the bay than the Bay Bridge does even today. The problem that we face is our demand for travel continues to grow, but not our capacity to carry people and goods.
There are times when rail service fails and buses are needed to carry rail passengers by road. But both our rail passenger service and roads need improving even for normal times, to say nothing about them dealing with an emergency. There are many more people and cars today in California and many other places than there were in 1980. Since the 1980’s there has been a major decline in the construction of new freeways as well as of maintenance of the major roads, bridges and freeways. What we don’t have more of is more land since 1980 as the post World War 2 era of economic growth and new infrastructure slowly came to a near halt during the 1970’s. Much of that transportation infrastructure predates World War 2 and all of it is now in need of replacement or repair. Are more roads the answer? The real question is were would you build them? Building new suburbs would require lots of land. Even if the land was available, long distance commutes by car would be required which is very expensive and exhausting for those commuting by car. The bigger issue for most people is finding affordable housing. The most economic form of housing is high density housing. The problem with that is there isn’t enough land to build enough parking, let alone roads in a city with high density housing for everyone to drive a car.
This brings up the latest hysteria about the cost of building California High Speed Rail. Yes there are problems securing land for rights of way which is causing the price of building High Speed Rail in the San Joaquin Valley to go over budget. But this is not unique to rail service. The same problems occur when trying to build new airports or new freeways. Notice no one in California or most other places are trying to do either now. That’s because of the cost and opposition from property owners if a proposal is made to build anything using private property. The cheapest alternative for building High Speed Rail in the San Joaquin Valley would have been using land on the I-5 freeway. The land would have been free since the State already owned it. The problem with using the I-5 is it doesn’t serve any towns in the San Joaquin Valley. A major goal of High Speed Rail is to serve the cities in the San Joaquin Valley and help stimulate the local economies. So far spending for construction of High Speed Rail has already reduced the high levels of unemployment in the Valley. Economic growth in cities with train stations is usually seen after rail passenger service is expanded.
Are the problems with High Speed Rail construction going to kill the project which its critics often predict? Let’s look at Los Angeles’s first modern subway line, the Red Line. It went way over budget, had serious accidents and its construction caused damage to many buildings where the tunneling went under. It was late getting built, and early ridership was well under projection. Los Angeles County in the 1990’s even banned all future subway construction for future rail service in the county. Today there are rail tunneling projects in Los Angeles County for the Crenshaw/LAX line due to open in 2019. Also now under construction in downtown Los Angeles is tunneling for the Regional Connector for the Blue, Gold and Expo Lines opening by 2021. Construction is now underway to extend the Red Line by tunnel from Western Ave to La Cienega Blvd to open by 2023. The plans are now to finish extending the Red Line to Westwood in time for the Los Angeles Olympics by 2028.
We clearly need roads and railroads. People will still have cars even if the cars drive themselves. But we need to get more out of the roads we have. That means more people but fewer cars on the roads and streets. Railroads can easily be improved to carry more people and freight. Adding more tracks, from one to 2 and up to four tracks on many existing railroads is feasible and could be done at a fraction of the cost of trying to build new or to expand existing roads. Double track passenger service can carry passenger loads on par with freeways with cars typically carrying mostly one person. Not only is having a good mixture of road and rail service a good idea in times of emergencies, but also for the rest of the time too.