By Noel T. Braymer
By 2022 California will have over 440 miles of High Speed Railroad. By 2019 there will be 130 miles of High Speed Track between Bakersfield and Merced. Starting later this year construction is expected to begin for High Speed Rail between Las Vegas and Southern California with service planned by 2021. This will include 185 miles of new High Speed Rail between Las Vegas and Victorville. The Victorville station will be a large park and ride lot. Of the 185 miles between Las Vegas and Victorville, 145 miles will be in California. Also in the works are plans to extend Las Vegas High Speed Rail service 60 miles to Palmdale with connections to Metrolink and future California High Speed Rail service. This extension is expected to open soon after initial service is running to Victorville. With the Palmdale extension there will be 205 miles of High Speed Rail in California just between Palmdale and Las Vegas. By 2022 the California High Speed Rail Authority should have about 300 miles of trackage to start the first High Speed Rail Passenger service in California.
The Big question is not if, but when the full 520 miles of High Speed Rail between San Francisco and Anaheim is built. When this happens California will have 725 miles of High Speed Rail. First the question is when and where the Initial Operating Segment (IOS) will be for the first inter-California High Speed Rail service. There has been speculation in the Media that the California High Speed Rail project is in deep trouble with major cost overruns expected when tunneling begins between Bakersfield and Burbank. Much of this speculation is driven by changes that may be coming with the 2016 Business Plan for the High Speed Project to be released in the coming weeks. The California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) is not releasing details of its 2016 Business Plan since they haven’t finished writing it yet. The CHSRA has admitted that they are experiencing some delays due to gaining some environmental clearances and the slow process of condemning land for parts of the project. A major point of the speculation is that the first IOS will be between San Jose and Bakersfield instead of Merced to Burbank as originally planned. Clearly going to San Jose first, instead of Burbank will be cheaper and easier to build.
What the leadership of the CHSRA have made clear is while some segments of the project are taking longer to build than they would like, their objective which will be reflected in the 2016 Business Plan is to speed up construction on the project as a whole. We won’t know for sure what this will mean until the draft of the 2016 Business Plan is released. But it might mean that High Speed Rail might not get to Burbank by 2022 as planned by the 2012 Business Plan. But this might also mean that the full 520 miles between San Francisco and Anaheim might be finished by 2024 instead of 2029 which is the date in the 2012 Business Plan.
A clue for this came from a request by the CHSRA to LA Metro to approve a plan to reserve 2 platforms and 4 tracks at Los Angeles Union Station as part of the project to add run-through tracks and a new concourse under the platforms at Los Angeles Union Station. Construction of the run-through tracks and new concourse is expected to start around 2017 and be finished by 2020. The goal of the CHSRA is to have High Speed Rail according to this request at Los Angeles by 2024, not 2029 which was the original date. The 2029 deadline was for the completion of the entire 520 route between San Francisco and Anaheim in the 2012 Business Plan.
The big question is where and how soon the CHSRA plans to expand construction beyond the current 130 miles in the San Joaquin Valley? On the question of the project’s budget, the CHSRA said that they are under budget. The CHSRA has pointed out that the 2012 Business Plan budget of $68.5 Billion had almost $11 Billion of the budget set aside for cash reserves for contingencies. So far they haven’t had to use the contingency funds to cover any budget overruns. By speeding up construction, they can quickly free up the cash reserves for contingencies for construction to finish the remaining projects faster and cheaper. Because of this, the CHSRA is confident that they can revise and lower their budget for the 520 miles between San Francisco and Anaheim below the 2012 budget of $68.5 Billion.
If by 2024 High Speed Rail is running between Los Angeles and San Jose, when will service be extended to San Francisco and Anaheim? It is only 51 miles between San Jose and San Francisco and about 29 miles between Los Angeles and Anaheim. Both routes will be sharing right of way and tracks with existing rail passenger service. There will be the need to make track upgrades and electrify the tracks. But these are some of the easiest and cheapest construction segments on the project. These would be good candidates for building sooner. We might see construction begin north to San Jose before the 130 miles of High Speed Rail is finished in the rest of the San Joaquin Valley by 2019. We might see service running to San Jose before 2022 when the 2012 Business Plan called for initial service to Burbank. We might see construction south of Bakersfield to Palmdale before tunneling begins south of Palmdale to Burbank.
We won’t know for sure until the CHSRA’s 2016 Business Plan is released in a few weeks. So why the big rush now to accelerate construction now? They will save money building faster and starting passenger service sooner. Also much of the financing for the California High Speed Rail Project after the 300 mile IOS and future extensions to Sacramento, Inland Empire and San Diego depends on investors supplying capital for future construction. Once the CHSRA has roughly 300 miles of High Speed track which is over half the distance between San Francisco and Anaheim, investors have told the CHSRA that then they would be willing to invest in finishing the project. Basically building the first 300 miles is the riskiest part of the project, and after that private money is more comfortable they will get a return on their investment. The California travel market between it’s major cities is one of the biggest travel markets in the world. There are plenty of companies and counties that are interested in being involved in California High Speed Rail. The High Speed Rail project between Las Vegas and Southern California is being largely financed by the Chinese, which is eager to get a foothold in the California and American travel market.
What the changes likely to be made to the 2016 CHSRA’s Business Plan says about the CHSRA is that it is not the desperate and deeply troubled agency ready to collapse at any moment as often painted in the Media over the last 8 years or so. Great progress has been made since 2012 when the CHSRA reached its lowest point. We should expect more High Speed Rail service sooner than was expected just 4 years ago.