By Noel T. Braymer
It is human nature to be fascinated by speed. When people travel they are interested in speed. But when you look at the most successful transportation services, connections are more important than speed for ridership every time. That is because if you can’t get to where you want to go, faster speeds won’t help.
The first leg of California’s High Speed Rail service will be from Merced to Bob Hope Airport in Burbank.The plan is to run from the start with 32 round trips trains a day. That is a lot of seats to fill. The key to filling those seats will be a network of connecting services at all of the stations to the rest of California. So far this network seems rather thin in some places.
At the insistence of the City of Bakersfield, planning is going ahead to run High Speed Rail along the right of way of the Union Pacific Railroad instead of the BNSF. The problem with this is the San Joaquin Trains operate mostly on the BNSF in the San Joaquin Valley including in Bakersfield. In fact with current planning there are no plans for any joint stations for easy transfers between any San Joaquin Trains and the future High Speed Rail service.
Also in the news are plans to move the Fresno Greyhound Station which is in the area of the Fresno High Speed Rail Station construction site. The plan is to move the Greyhound Station to the old Santa Fe Fresno Station which is now also the Amtrak Station. This is over a half mile from the future high speed rail station. Does this mean that California High Speed Rail has no plans for direct connections by bus?
One solution to connecting High Speed Rail and the San Joaquin Trains would be to build joint stations on the BNSF. Possible locations for joint stations would be with new stations for Wasco in the south and Madera in the north of the San Joaquin Valley. This could work for local High Speed Trains to connect with San Joaquins for passengers headed in the future to Southern California or the Bay Area. At Madera it would be possible to also have connections with extended Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) trains for service to to Stockton, the East Bay and San Jose. There are plans for a handful of ACE trains to transfer passengers with High Speed Rail at Merced. Four of these trains would stop at the Amtrak Station which will be several blocks from the High Speed Rail Station in Merced. There are plans for 2 ACE trains to use the Union Pacific tracks which will be near the High Speed Rail Station. No details are available of where the ACE Station on the UP at Merced will be.
Planning is more advanced for connections to High Speed Rail in Southern California. With the completion of run through tracks at Los Angeles Union Station by 2020, it will be possible by 2022 to run many connecting trains to Burbank for connections with High Speed Rail. There are plans for Metrolink trains from several routes to be extended to the Bob Hope Airport High Speed Rail Station. There are also plans to extend several Pacific Surfliner trains to the Bob Hope Airport Station as well.
The Pacific Surfliners are long overdue for reductions in travel time. There has been little progress in reducing travel times on the Surfliners since 1980 between San Diego and Los Angeles. In fact running times between these cities is slower today than the scheduled running times in the 1970’s. There are plans to run some limited stop Surfliners in the future as part of additional trains on the corridor.
Not much has been publicized about what the running times will be for these limited stop Surfliners or if or how they will connect to High Speed Rail. Let us not forget that San Diego is the second largest city in California. It is an important travel market and current plans to extend High Speed Rail to San Diego are sometime well after 2029. So good connections to San Diego by 2022 to High Speed Rail is a good idea. This should be combined with a system of local and express trains between Los Angeles and San Diego with easy transfers to connect this large market of over 6 million people in Orange and San Diego Counties.
By 2022 limited rail service between San Jose and Merced is pllanned with ACE to connect with High Speed Rail. But there are no plans for connections to Sacramento or any part of the northern San Joaquin Valley to High Speed Rail. As it is now there are only 2 round trips a day on the San Joaquin Trains to Sacramento. Most rail passengers to Sacramento depend on bus connections at Stockton for trips to and from Sacramento. Adding more trains from the San Joaquin Valley to Sacramento is long overdue.
Plans for High Speed Rail to Sacramento are the same as for San Diego: some time after 2029. Sacramento is a major under served market by rail. If for no one else, elected officials serving in Sacramento should have service to get first hand experience traveling by rail to and from Sacramento. This is a good way to insure that public transportation is built if our elected officials are also users.
There has not been a peep of any plans to add connecting buses to California High Speed Rail. There are lots of places and people going to or from places that have rail service in one place, but not in the other. California is a big place and rail can’t cover it all. We are going to need all the connections we can get to fill up High Speed Rail Trains.
One way which is not being looked at to connect High Speed Rail to either San Diego or Sacramento is to extend service to both places using both the High Speed Rail Tracks and improving the existing tracks. In fact it would make sense to run trains from San Diego through Burbank, then from Merced out to Sacramento. This would provide direct service over a long route with many station combinations and markets for better ridership. The biggest objection to this will be that the non high speed rail lines are not electrified. There are several ways to overcome this. Electric trains can be towed by diesel locomotives. There are hybrid electric trains that have generators for use on non-electrified lines or with battery technology improving batteries can be use to run on these trains where there isn’t catenary.
So who would run High Speed Trains on older, slower railroads? Well several passenger services do this. Chief among them the SNCF in France, operator of the TGV High Speed Trains. Most of the cities of France have TGV service on the original rights of way which have improved for speeds over 100 miles per hour. The trains cut running time by using long segments of High Speed Rail right of way. When the Eurostar trains first ran from London to Paris and Brussels it used a British commuter rail line with third rail electrification to get into London. It was slow but it started service. Since then a new alignment which is much faster has been built.
If we look back at air travel, in the 1960’s air travel between most major cities was faster than today. This is because air traffic was less congested, fuel was cheaper so planes flew faster and airlines had many more direct, non-stop flights between cities. In the 1960’s air travel was highly regulated by the Federal Government. There was no competition on ticket prices and air fares where higher than today in real terms. Also it was very difficult for a new airline to go into business because of regulation. Regulation insured that the existing airlines could make a profit and provide service to many cities, primarily for business travel.
All this changed in the late 1970’s with airline deregulation. Many airlines, both old and new went out of business with deregulation. The airlines that survived, did so with hub and spoke service. With hub airports planes made connections to many more travel markets than they could with non-stop flights. Some frequent flyers gripped about the loss of direct service and the slower travel times to many cities. But the airlines realized that to survive and make money they needed to fill their planes by serving the greatest number of markets with the fewest number of flights as possible. Using hub and spoke airports was the key to doing this.
The same is true of passenger rail today, including High Speed Rail.